Boxcar Bertha (1972)

A film revolving around the labour movement during the Depression feels like it should have more soul than this, but it all feels thin and incoherent, more interested at gesturing at themes than really exploring much of anything beyond the titillation of this sort of exploitation-type filmmaking. It’s interesting seeing some of Scorsese’s techniques put to work in a film lacking his heart, and there are rapid zooms, rhythmic cutting, dreamy dissolves and such for sure, but there’s very little sense of character here.

When compared to Scorsese’s first film, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR, the coherency of actually making a film start to finish is evident (that first film was cobbled together from multiple filmings), and that surely made an impact on how the excellent MEAN STREETS was developed. But beyond being a proving ground for Scorsese’s development, there’s not an awful lot here, and much of the violence feels pointless and there for its own sake, which doesn’t feel very Scorsese at all. What does feel Scorsese is the very end of the film, a call-forward to SILENCE, ending on an arresting image that threatens to actually develop some sort of thematic statement for the film.

The titular Bertha is woefully undercharacterised, just a piece moved around on a board, and the cast feels lost in the mix given the lack of real material to work with. But there’s an undeniable enjoyment factor to the setting and the ideas the film gestures at. It’s just very reassuring this was an aberration rather than the norm for Scorsese. Two and a half dice, and a marked bill.

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