(Lisa is currently in the process of trying to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing all 40 of the movies that she recorded from the start of March to the end of June. She’s trying to get it all done by July 11th! Will she make it!? Keep visiting the site to find out!)
The 24th film on my DVR was the 1970 Roger Corman-directed gangster film, Bloody Mama. I recorded it off of TCM on May 27th.
Bloody Mama opens with a cheerful song that goes, “Maaaaaama…Bloody maaaaama….” and it’s such an unapolegetically over the top song that it perfectly sets the tone for what’s to follow. Bloody Mama is violent, occasionally perverse, and totally unashamed. It doesn’t pretend to be anything that it isn’t. It’s bloody and it’s about a mother and, in the best Corman tradition, it makes no apologies!
The film tells the heavily fictionalized story of the Barkers, a group of brothers who robbed banks and killed people in the 1920s and 30s. The majority of them were killed in a gunfight with the FBI. Also killed in the gunfight was their mother, Kate Barker. Always aware of the danger of bad publicity, the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, announced that Ma Barker was actually the mastermind of the Barker gang and that she was even more dangerous than her sons. Ever since, historians have debated whether Ma Barker was the criminal mastermind described by Hoover or if she was just the innocent woman described by … well, by everyone who actually knew her.
Bloody Mama, of course, leaves no doubt. From the minute that we discover that Shelley Winters will be playing Ma Barker, we know that she’s the most dangerous woman alive. As played by Winters, Ma Barker is a ruthless bank robber, one who has no fear of gunning down innocent bystanders and who never lets her love for her sons get in the way of ordering them to kill a witness. As opposed to a lot of gangster films made in the late 60s and early 70s, the film never attempts to portray its title character as being a heroic or particularly sympathetic character. Instead, what makes the character compelling is just how thoroughly Winters commits to the role. It doesn’t matter what Ma Barker is doing or saying, Shelley Winters totally sells it. When the gang is cornered by the police and one associate makes the mistake of yelling that he’s not a Barker, Ma reacts by gunning him down herself and you can’t help but appreciate the lengths that Ma will go to defend her family’s name.
As for her sons, they are an interesting group of perverts and drug addicts and they’re played some of the best character actors of the 1970s.
Herman Barker (Don Stroud) is a sadist but he’s also one of Ma’s favorites. He travels with a prostitute (played by Diane Varsi), who quickly tires of the Barkers’s violent way of life.
Arthur Barker (Clint Kimbrough) is the most practical of the Barkers and therefore, he’s also the least interesting.
Fred Barker (Robert Walden) is bisexual, which is a fact that the film handles with all the sensitivity that we’ve come to expect from a film made in 1970 (which is to say, not much at all). Fortunately, Fred’s lover is Kevin and Kevin is played by Bruce Dern and Bruce Dern is always a lot of fun to watch, especially when he’s appearing in a Corman film.
And then there’s Lloyd who sniffs glue and shoots heroin and who is played by an obscure young actor named Robert De Niro and … wait, Robert De Niro! That’s right! One of the pleasures of Bloody Mama is getting to see De Niro at the start of his career. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really get to do much, though he does occasionally flash the same unhinged smile that would later show up in Taxi Driver.
Roger Corman has repeatedly cited Bloody Mama as being one of his favorites of the many movies that he directed over the course of his long career. I don’t blame him. It’s a thoroughly shameless and totally entertaining film!
Keep an eye out for Bloody Mama!
Just remember, the real-life Ma Barker was probably innocent.