Scorsese’s 1972 feature Boxcar Bertha unfolds like an exploitation flick and looks like both foreshadowing to the director’s later works such as Last Temptation of Christ and a throwback to works like Who’s That Knocking At My Door? Barbara Hershey portrays the titular Bertha, a woman wildly in love with Bill Shelley (David Carradine), a Union man who finds himself in rapidly declining situations. Usually because of Bertha.
Regardless, their love seems to prevail, and while she ultimately seems to save Bill more often than not, she appears to be his death in the end. Literally crucified, thanks to Bertha (it seems), Bill hangs by his impaled wrists from the side of a boxcar which begins to gather speed – racing away from Bertha.
Another (in some ways more important) storyline is that of Bill’s friend, a black man named Von Morton. Though the film is set in the era of the Depression, Scorsese (whether intentionally or simply due to budgetary restrictions) infuses references to the 1970s as well. The film, while trying to be a period piece of sorts, feels increasingly more modern than it’s story’s date would indicate. Von Morton is not afraid to show how he appreciates Bill’s (and even Bertha’s) friendship throughout the film, and these moments are very tightly directed, combining an underlying tension that viewers might be expected to have, with a poignancy that surprises at times.
The loves scenes, which Carradine and Hershey have reportedly stated are “not acted,” seem fresh and honest, a tribute (or extension of) the beautiful honesty exhibited in the earlier Who’s That Knocking At My Door?. Boxcar Bertha is a wonderful film overall, a welcomed detour from the director’s other films from the 70s, drawing from the sharpness of Bonnie and Clyde and the moodiness of Badlands, proving that if Scorsese had of kept working on The Honeymoon Killers (later shot by Leonard Kastle), it may have been his first Raging Bull.