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Martin Scorsese’s Forgotten Gangster Movie

Everyone knows ‘Mean Streets,’ ‘Goodfellas,’ and most recently ‘The Irishman’—but what about ‘Boxcar Bertha’?

American International Pictures/Ringer illustration

It’s easy to connect the dots between Martin Scorsese’s first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, and his third, Mean Streets. Both draw on Scorsese’s experiences growing up in New York, and both star Harvey Keitel as young men sorting through a tangle of conflicting expectations and values placed on them by everything from the Catholic Church to movie heroes to the shady characters they call friends. To watch the films back-to-back is to see raw talent refined and a filmmaker finding a way to transform his influences and daring artistic impulses into a distinctive vision. But eight years divide the first footage shot for Who’s That Knocking at My Door in 1965 and Mean Streets’ release in October 1973. In the time between, Scorsese kept reworking his debut (expanding its scope, taking it to festivals, adding a sex scene at the request of a distributor), taught film, took odd film jobs, shot a documentary, and got fired from a future cult classic. He also made Boxcar Bertha, a second feature usually mentioned only dismissively as a footnote instead of what it really was: an essential moment in Scorsese’s evolution as a filmmaker.

Any line between Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Mean Streets has to take a side trip to rural Arkansas for a violent exploitation film made quickly and cheaply for Roger Corman, a film that found Scorsese learning the limits of what he could do within a system that had helped start the careers of many of his peers. While working as an assistant sound editor for John Cassavetes on 1971’s Minnie and Moskowitz (“I didn’t do anything!” Scorsese told Vanity Fair in 2018. “I just would follow him around and watch him cut film late at night, and he would dictate stories”), Scorsese caught Corman’s eye. The low-budget producer thought he might be a good fit to shoot a sequel to Bloody Mama, a Corman-directed 1970 hit inspired by the exploits of the Depression-era outlaws in the Barker-Karpis Gang (costarring future Scorsese leading man Robert De Niro).

That movie never happened. Instead, Scorsese took the assignment of directing Boxcar Bertha, another crime-filled film set during the Great Depression. The 1967 success of Bonnie and Clyde and a free-floating nostalgia for the early decades of the 20th century had helped create an audience for bloody stories of gangsters and outlaws that lasted into the early ’70s, and Boxcar Bertha was designed to satisfy that audience. Scorsese came to see it as a learning experience and, as he described it in Chris Nashawaty’s Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman—King of the B Movie, a crash course in “the realities of the marketplace.” “There has to be a chase scene here; there has to be a touch of nudity there,” Scorsese said, imitating Corman. “He didn’t apologize for that. This is what we do—every fifteen pages in the script, there should be a suggestion of nudity.” The challenge, Scorsese would discover, was finding a way to express himself within the bounds of this formula.

Fortunately, the material proved richer than the usual Bonnie and Clyde knock-off. Scripted by the husband-and-wife team of Joyce and John William Corrington (who’d recently penned the script for The Omega Man and would later embark on a long career writing daytime soap operas), the film is based on the 1937 book Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha. Sister of the Road is not, however, a nonfiction book, as was still widely believed at the time (and the film claims in an opening title). Years later, even Scorsese would mistakenly persist in thinking of it as having been based on the true-life experiences of a woman named Bertha Thompson, a free-spirited rider of the rails who mixed with labor organizers, card sharps, and blues musicians. In truth, it was written by Ben Reitman, a doctor and anarchist otherwise best known as the lover of Emma Goldman. That helps explain the film’s strong leftist slant and inclusion of impassioned speeches about exploitative labor practices (though Corman regularly made a point of inserting liberal sentiments whenever the material would allow it). And its authenticity is less dubious than it might seem at first. Reitman was no stranger to the world of the story. As a doctor, he mostly worked with hobos and prostitutes and would later reveal he created Bertha as a composite of three women he met during his travels (though he was happy to allow the public to think she was real for the first editions of the book).

Regardless of her origins, Scorsese’s Bertha takes in much of the wild side of 1930s life. Beautifully played by Barbara Hershey in a performance that captures her progress from naive waif to hardened criminal, Bertha begins the film as a pigtailed teenager forced to fend for herself when her father dies in a crop-dusting accident. When her father’s bosses, whose dangerous request caused the accident, start making excuses, a pair of witnesses begin assaulting them. We’ll soon learn their names: the tough, harmonica-playing mechanic Von Morton (Bernie Casey) and his fiery, labor-organizing pal Big Bell Shelly (David Carradine). But even before that, the movie clues us in on its themes: This is a world where life comes cheap and those who work with their hands have to fight against those in control if they want to call anything their own—or just stay alive.

The film cuts to the opening credits on Bertha’s scream, which gives way to the sound of a fiddle hitting a similar pitch. It’s a distinctive touch that arrives at the end of an opening sequence that begins with an extreme close-up and includes POV shots from a plane’s cockpit and a split diopter image, all suggestions that this was no ordinary director behind the camera. He wasn’t just winging it, either. “Marty went to Arkansas ahead of everybody to scout locations,” Corman told Nashawaty. “And when we arrived, we found that he had sketched all of the shots and tacked them to the walls of his motel room. It was the most complete preparation of a picture I had ever seen.”

Yet the film keeps fighting Scorsese. The director’s touches often feel like ornamentation on a story that doesn’t have a lot of nuance, and which stringently abides by the a-chase-or-some-nudity-every-few-minutes dictum. (Offscreen romantic partners at the time, Carradine and Hershey would even promote the film via a re-creation of the film’s love scenes for Playboy.) For as strong as Scorsese’s presence remains throughout, there’s no sense of ownership. Boxcar Bertha remains, at heart, a low-budget Corman film—a fine thing to be, but not the sort of film Scorsese would soon be known for making.

Still, some took note. Roger Ebert, who’d enthusiastically reviewed Who’s That Knocking at My Door a few years earlier, offered measured praise, noting that Scorsese had “gone for mood and atmosphere more than for action, and his violence is always blunt and unpleasant” before concluding, “Within the limits of the film’s possibilities, he has succeeded.” Others were less kind: The Boston Globe called the direction “aimless” while the New York Daily News dubbed it a “slipshod and confusing collage.”

Its harshest criticism, however, came from Cassavetes. Scorsese frequently tells the story of the fiercely independent filmmaker’s assessment after seeing a rough cut: “Marty, you’ve just spent a whole year of your life making a piece of shit. It’s a good picture, but you’re better than the kind of people who make this kind of movie.” That moment has become one of the tentpoles of the Scorsese origin story, alongside his sickly, asthma-afflicted childhood, his lifelong movie obsession, and his time running the streets of Little Italy with ruffians. Perhaps without it, Scorsese might have talked himself into staying with Corman, enrolling for another year in the B-movie film school that proved so beneficial to filmmakers like Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, and others. But Scorsese had already graduated film school. He already knew what he wanted to make, a screenplay of his then called Season of the Witch, but soon to be called Mean Streets, a film that returned him to the subject of New York and the often desperate characters who walk its streets, and also marked his first collaboration with De Niro. From that point on, up to and including The Irishman (also starring De Niro), Scorsese focused in on the stories he wanted to tell—on the films that “the people who make this kind of movie” could never fathom making themselves.

Leaving Corman was, in retrospect, the right choice, but Scorsese didn’t immediately see it as the obvious one. An extensive 1972 profile in the Los Angeles Times noted that Scorsese hoped to keep working with Corman on Mean Streets, unmistakably the unnamed film the piece refers to as a project that would be “a return to and further consideration of the localized cultural realities of his heritage.” Corman wanted that, too, but only sort of. In the same interview, Scorsese recalls Corman, inspired by the success of his brother Gene’s blaxploitation film Cool Breeze, saying “if you could swing and make the characters black, I’ll give you a couple hundred thousand dollars and you can shoot it in New York.” Scorsese said he’d think about it, but not for long, remembering, “I knew I couldn’t do it as soon as I walked out of the room.” Of course, Scorsese could have done it; a blaxploitation Mean Streets might have been a fascinating film, a compelling entry in a rich, vital, influential, and fondly remembered genre. It just wouldn’t have been his.

Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.