Sunday, June 12, 2016

DVR Diary: BLOODY MAMA (1970)

Imagine Christopher Nolan making a Batman movie and casting an actor from the 1966 TV show as the villain -- as the same villain he or she played on the show -- and the effect would be similar to Shelley Winters, Batman's Ma Parker, playing that character's real-life model, "Ma" Barker, in Roger Corman's film. I suppose it was a case of no other actress being imaginable for such a role at the time, especially if you take a "print the legend" approach portraying Ma as the violent mastermind of her family's gang, despite testimony to the contrary from contemporaries. There's really little difference between Winters playing the role straight and her camping it up, and given the strong hints of incest in the Corman film, and Winters' mature acting style, you could argue that she camped it up both times. For Corman it was a resumption of a gangster cycle he had started with 1958's Machine-Gun Kelly and resumed with 1967's St. Valentine's Day Massacre. By 1970 no film in that genre could go uninfluenced by Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, and Corman shows its influence in an increased gore quotient and a concern with sexual dysfunction, from an incestuous bent in Ma herself dating back to a childhood rape at the hands of her brothers to the homosexuality of one of her sons. The drug addiction (and eventual overdose) of one son (Robert DeNiro) only adds to the decadence. Corman probably also owes to Bonnie and Clyde a consciousness of economic injustice that in this case doesn't really make the Barkers sympathetic. Bloody Mama is a more cynical film that discourages sympathy with Ma in many ways. It acknowledges the folk-hero popularity of country bandits like her family as Ma notes that she'd probably get more fan mail than Eleanor Roosevelt if people knew her address, but the film also makes clear that she doesn't deserve it, most pointedly in a narrative read over newsreel footage in which Ma notes with contempt the debate in Congress over an anti-lynching bill, then notes with relief its defeat with help from "some good people," aka the Klan. Ma is all too conscious of inequality, but no sense of solidarity results from it. "It's supposed to be a free country," she says at one point, "But unless you're rich you ain't free, so I aim to be freer than the rest of the people." Depression ethics are dog-eat-dog ethics as far as Ma is concerned, while her boys are too stupid even to consider ethics. If Bonnie and Clyde influences most of the film, Corman seems to take his cues for the climax from The Wild Bunch as the Barkers inflict far more casualties on the cops besieging their Florida hideout than history records. History apparently confirms the added satirical note Corman adds to the Peckinpah-style finish by having spectators arrive with picnic lunches to watch the siege and gasp whenever a cop gets shot. Overall Bloody Mama is an energetic film with decent shootout and chase scenes and the right amount of sleaze to make it contemporary. Your tolerance for it will depend on your tolerance of Shelley Winters, still playing a cartoon character but in deadly earnest.

Bonus Content: American-International Pictures sent young Robert DeNiro on press junkets to promote Bloody Mama, and inevitably to promote himself as a possible future movie star. Here's a typical interview from the Spartanburgh Herald Journal of March 22, 1970.

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