Boxcar Bertha (1970) Scorsese’s Sophomore Jinx?

Martin Scorsese has repeatedly acknowledged his debt to John Cassavetes’ dramatic realism and his boldly inventive style. Uncompromising, he is arguably the most brilliant filmmaker working in American film today. Over the last 30 years, Scorsese has directed an impressive cannon of innovative and controversial films. He combines a cineaste’s passion for film noir with appreciation for rich characterization and evocation of precise sense of time and place.

Scorsese’s films display such bravura with their dazzling camera, jump cuts, and vivid frames that the filmmaking itself becomes a subject of his movies. Even his weaker movies have boasted stylistic audacity, self-reflexivity and rich commentary on narrativity.

His first film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1968), was a semi-autobiographical drama about the relationship between a streetwise (Harvey Keitel), hung up by his strict Catholic upbringing, and an independent young woman (Zina Bethune).

After working briefly for the CBS-TV election unit covering Hubert Humphrey, Scorsese turned out his second feature, Boxcar Bertha, a as sort of blood-and-gore sequel to Roger Corman’s “Bloody Mama,” not to mention the more prestigious films it imitates, such as “Bonnie and Clyde.”

The young and beautiful Barbara Hershey plays Bertha, a small-town girl who falls in with the young and handsome David Carradine and his band of train robbers.

Arguably one of Scorsese’s two or three weakest films, Boxcar Bertha is a minor exploitation flick, but it gave the then young director the opportunity to work within the Hollywood system and paved the way to his phenomenal rise in the coming years, with such seminal works as “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver.”

Paying homage to some of his favorite directors, Scorsese names two minor characters as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (who made, among others, the masterpiece “The Red Shoes”). The cast also includes John Carradine (David’s father), Barry Primus, and Bernie Casey.

The film failed but it taught Scorsese some useful lessons. In later interviews, he had reported a crucial conversation with John Cassavates, who after seeing “Boxcar Bertha” advised him to steer clear of cheap, low-budget flicks and make more personal works that bear meaning.

The rest is history. Scorsese’s next (third) film, “Mean Streets” was a turning point in his career, a personal work that drew directly on his experience and launched a most fruitful collaboration with actor Robert De Niro.