Set in the Depression era of the late 1920s, Scorsese’s first studio feature film is a spirited and deftly executed gangster drama. Barbara Hershey plays Bertha, a young woman who on becoming homeless during the Depression, joins an itinerant group of unemployed travellers. Jumping from train to train, she makes box-cars her home and is introduced to socialist politics by her lover, Big Bill Shelley (David Carradine). When the police and state, acting with a deliberate cruelty, attempt to break apart the delicate communities built by the unemployed Bertha and Big Bill become train robbers: on an ironic take of the Robin Hood legend, they steal from the rich and they give it to the Trade Unions. Working within the strict budgetary confines of Roger Corman’s B-grade exploitation genre, Scorsese illuminates a fairly conventional gangster narrative with a glowing romanticism. In some of the more violent sequences, and in particular the highly charged climax, the film introduces themes that are to be continuing concerns for Scorsese over the length of his controversial career. Based on the memoirs of Boxcar Bertha herself.
American International Pictures (AIP)