Blu-ray Review: Boxcar Bertha - Twilight Time Limited Edition

By , Contributor
Let's not mince words: Boxcar Bertha is undoubtedly one of the most significant releases to come from boutique label Twilight Time's on-going limited edition (3,000 unites) Blu-ray series. The Roger Corman production is Martin Scorsese's second film, a follow up to his independent, highly-personal debut Who's That Knocking At My Door. That alone makes it a worthwhile addition to the collection of any Scorsese fan or cinephile in general. It's a work-for-hire piece by Scorsese rather than the deeply personal masterworks that would begin the very next year with Mean Streets. But even at this early stage in his career, Scorsese's visual style is evident.

The great news about Boxcar Bertha's Blu-ray debut is that the 1080p transfer looks fantastic. The cinematography by the late John M. Stephens (he passed away in 2015) is highly detailed. This is, simply put, a consistently beautiful transfer with colors bolder than ever before on previous formats. It's also virtually free of detectable print damage or debris. 
 
rsz_boxcar_bertha_booklet.png The story itself, set in the Depression-era South, leaves something to be desired. It's Scorsese's visually-interesting handling of the thin material that keeps it compelling. David Carradine stars as union organizer Big Bill Shelly. Barbara Hershey is Bertha, a young woman sent reeling following the death of her father in a small aircraft crash. Scorsese's staging of the pre-credits sequence is one of those signpost moments that points at the greatness to come (very soon, actually) in his career. Hershey immediately grabs viewers by the collar with her hysterical reaction to her father's tragic, fiery death. A free spirit searching for a new direction (essentially a child of the '60s transplanted back to the '30s), Bertha and Big Bill team up romantically and criminally. Along with Rake Brown, a Yankee who finds adapting to South particularly uncomfortable, they begin robbing trains.

Scorsese's inclusion, at producer Corman's insistence, of gratuitous sex and nudity pays off well as young Hershey is quite a vision of beauty. But it's the violence, as the robbers become targets of railroad tycoon H. Buckram Sartoris (John Carradine), that hits hard and reminds us whose work we're watching. Scorsese's abilities, of course, are best suited for more challenging material. But in lesser hands, Boxcar Bertha would've been a rather shabby Bonnie and Clyde knockoff and probably little more. Check out the bracing climax, however, for an unforgettable, visceral staging of savagery (not gratuitous, and accomplished on a very limited budget). Not a great film in and of itself, Boxcar Bertha is a vital stepping stone in the formative years of America's premiere director's career.

In addition to the sterling high definition transfer, Twilight Time's Blu-ray offers clean, simple DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono sound. There's also an isolated score track, a hallmark feature on Twilight Time releases. Remember, there were only 3,000 units issued—head to Screen Archives or the official Twilight Time site for ordering information while supplies last.

 
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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is film and music. His new jazz album Good Merlin is now available.

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