Bloody Mama (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Christopher Sharrett

Produced by Roger Corman, James H. Nicholson, and Samuel Z. Arkoff; directed by Roger Corman; screenplay by Robert Thom and Don Peters; cinematography by John Alonzo; music by Don Randi; editing by Eve Newman; designed by Michael Ross. Blu-ray and DVD, color, 95 min. 1970. A Kino Lorber release.

Comparisons of Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama (1970) and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) are inevitable, to the disadvantage of Corman’s film. Both films deal with Depression-era gangsters, but Bonnie and Clyde is a high-budget prestige film, now an acknowledged masterpiece (I wouldn’t argue), while Bloody Mamais a grubby, low-budget film by the “King of the B’s,” usually seen as one of a number of films exploiting the Sixties’ faddish interest in the Dust Bowl hoodlums initiated by Penn. But I will say for the moment that Corman’s film is at least as intelligent as Penn’s, equal to or surpassing Penn in insights, if not realized achievement.

First, I want to say that none of the many films about the Depression Era bandits have much to do with reality, nor do the gangsters themselves represent very much of significance to American history aside, perhaps, from being emblems of the era’s poverty (some of the gangsters—notably charismatic bank robber John Dillinger—were embraced by the public, theater audiences cheering when he appeared in newsreels). These criminals became monstrous demons threatening America, thanks to the propaganda of J. Edgar Hoover, who trumpeted the exploits of these people, thereby pumping up his own reputation as the nation’s “top cop” to get unlimited funds for the FBI, making it a huge secret police organization whose real focus was leftist groups, trade unions, civil rights organizations, and the FDR Administration.

The real Kate “Ma” Barker, labeled by Hoover as “the most vicious, dangerous, and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade,” supports my above points. As one of her associates said, “She couldn’t organize breakfast.” She was an imbecile who had a rough time with her many jigsaw puzzles, but several of her imbecilic sons were involved in a number of robberies. Their greatest fame arrived when the Barker boys teamed up with the notorious Alvin Karpis, after which Fred and Arthur “Doc” Barker undertook a series of murders and kidnappings until they were brought low in a shootout, with Ma’s body found “next” to a machine gun, or so goes one of many stories about this woman—it is doubtful that she could even lift, much less fire, a Thompson submachine gun.

Bonnie and Clyde is saturated with nostalgia for a lost America, the long shadows caught by Burnett Guffey’s camera drifting over a fading and desiccated landscape evoking Ford’s melancholy, the film’s two beautiful stars rendering Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow (two of the more repugnant sociopaths of the era) as Robin Hoods, and as symbols of the disappointed Sixties youth culture that Penn would eulogize in Alice’s Restaurant (1969). Bloody Mama is having none of this.

The film’s opening credits are set against red-tinged pages of a gun catalog, featuring all manner of handgun, shotgun, rifle, and evisceration knife (including the winning-of-the-West Bowie knife), enough to delight the pickiest NRA member. The evocative Flatt and Scruggs banjo music of Bonnie and Clyde, meant to suggest playful antics of “jes’ plain folks,” is here replaced by Don Randi’s similar yet jokey, manic score, appropriate for a film that is basically comic burlesque.

In a prologue, young Kate Barker is raped by her hillbilly father and brothers; she tearfully pledges to herself that she will “have [me] some boys,” but less to take revenge on men than to continue enjoying incest. The adult Ma Barker (Shelley Winters) would fulfill a clinician’s view that the victim of predation will likely become a predator, but there is no trauma inscribed in Ma, which would give her tragic connotations that Corman thinks laughable and thoroughly undeserved. We see her infantilizing her adult sons by washing each of them in a metal tub, admonishing them for their hijinks, and inevitably selecting one for bedtime. They leave Pa Barker, the castrated father, as the Ur-mother and her tribe hit the road for the big time. But their adventures are those of sadistic poor white trash, not would-be rebels, although their story is also expansive.

The film contains perhaps the best performance by Shelley Winters in her late-career manifestation. She is no longer the slim, sad-eyed country girl of A Place in the Sun (1951), but instead the overweight, blowsy harridan with a big mouth that would serve her for the rest of her career. Winters made use of her weight, creating what she no doubt thought was the best-articulated archetype of what men hate and fear most about women.

Bloody Mama gets its most caustic (and comical) edge from the sense that Ma and her boys are really the American norm. Ma tells her brood that, “You gotta fight the bastards,” a line that Nixon might have said on the Watergate tapes. She supplies a running commentary on events of the day as the film inserts at intervals contemporaneous newsreel clips. Ma is incensed at lewd women’s fashions of the period, making them promiscuous “and God knows what else.” She is angered by a proposed anti-lynching law, but consoles herself that “lots of folks weren’t happy” as we see a clip of the mammoth 1928 Ku Klux Klan rally in Washington, DC, followed by one of many thousands of postcard lynching images that circulated from the formation of the “Second Klan” (after Reconstruction) to the civil rights era. Ma likes the airman and profascist Charles Lindbergh; she says she “likes a man who takes things into his own hands,” and the film cuts to Herman Barker (Don Stroud) atop a woman fascinated with his gorilla-like charm. Herman, a total psychopath, is also the family’s lead crybaby—after crushing a man’s throat, he cries in Ma’s arms. She tells him he can sleep with mama that night. Were it not so over the top, the film would seem almost the screed of a conservative sociologist complaining about mollycoddled men tied to their mothers’ apron strings. Bloody Mama becomes a meditation (a jocular one) on the family, the American Dream of upward mobility, and the basic crudity of American life.

Bloody Mama has a fine cast of supporting actors, including several who would make a mark in the coming decade, including Stroud (surely the recurring psycho of Seventies action movies), a young Bruce Dern, and a very young, prefame Robert De Niro as Lloyd Barker, the glue-sniffing, skin-popping, and thoroughly worthless son. The film reminds us once again why the “Corman School” of filmmaking was so important to postwar U.S. cinema, producing as it did so much fascinating talent.

While in prison, Fred Barker (Robert Waldon) becomes the jailhouse punk of wide-eyed looney Kevin Dirkman (Dern), a fictitious character apparently a stand-in for Alvin Karpis, who was never this handsome. The two form a sexual partnership and rejoin the gang. Ma has a hankering for Kevin, choosing him over her sons as a temporary bedmate, the first time she has ever enjoyed legal sexual intercourse in her life; she complains to some stripped-naked hostages that she and her boys are “no preverts.”

Shelley Winters gives an enormously charismatic performance as Ma Barker

Shelley Winters gives an enormously charismatic performance as Ma Barker

The denouement is the archetypal ambush/shootout of the Barker gang in a tumbledown clapboard rooming house, surrounded by the police and federal agents as local folks watch from afar, enjoying the show while having picnics (this is apparently true). The sequence has Shelley Winters’s best acting, as she has a nervous breakdown while doing her share with a tommy gun. She sputters, shrieks, cries, knocks pictures off the walls, and lapses into total hysteria as each of her sons is killed. Herman blows his brains out, less perhaps out of a sense of futility than his long-overdue repulsion at the grotesque who is his mother.

After everybody is annihilated, the film closes with a whimper rather than the tragic bang of Bonnie and Clyde. Corman shows a Mother’s Day postage stamp with “Whistler’s Mother,” more sensibly titled “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1.” The final notes of the score feel like half-hearted flatulence, as the film says farewell to America and all its lunacy.

Corman offers us a nihilist take on the family unit, with the Freudian trimmings that adorned his renowned Edgar Allan Poe cycle, but one can easily argue that the focus on the female rather than the patriarch unfairly skews the reality of gender politics in America, especially among this social class at this time. But his disrespect for the “official story” (of the Barkers, of America) is, however, laudable, here and elsewhere in his career.

The Kino Lorber Blu-ray restoration of Bloody Mama is yet another laudable effort at restoring Old (or interregnum) Hollywood; the disc’s flawless sharpness doesn’t undercut the film’s necessary grubbiness, and insistence, at the height of the Nixon era, that there is no place to go. Ma Barker’s final words are applicable to our socioeconomic world forty-five years after this movie was made: “We never had nothing.’”

The Blu-ray extra is an interview with the always-charming Corman who recounts accurately the details of the production, with some thoughtful insights on the subject matter. Unfortunately, interviewers seem disinclined to bring out Corman the Freudian Oxford graduate, or to reveal the intellectual who is far more than “King of the B’s.”

It’s important to film history to note that the romanticizing of the Dust Bowl bandits long preceded Bonnie and Clyde and ripostes like Bloody Mama. Those interested in Depression-Era bad guys should revisit Raoul Walsh’s superb High Sierra (1941), virtually the apotheosis of Dillinger, with its Dillinger-like hoodlum an alienated friend to the poor, and Humphrey Bogart made up to resemble the flinty, legendary bank robber. Apologies to Robert Warshow, but to my mind this is the only film where the gangster is truly a tragic hero.

Christopher Sharrett is professor of communication and film studies at Seton Hall University.

To purchase Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray or DVD of Bloody Mama, click here.

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