Five Ways of Looking at “Bloody Mama”

There are five reasons to revisit Bloody Mama in light of its recent Kino Lorber reissue.

1. Knock-off of Bonnie and Clyde: Producer-director Roger Corman kept his eye on trends, following some and anticipating others. He’d made a few gangster pictures before, but after Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde became a controversial hit, he saw an opening for another period bloodbath that takes liberties with real-life outlaws.

Thus, the world has Bloody Mama, based on the Depression-era exploits of Ma Barker and her wayward bank-robbing sons. They’d already been featured in a low-budget wonder called Ma Barker’s Killer Brood (1960) and an episode of TV’s The Untouchables; but heck, there’d already been a movie called The Bonnie Parker Story in 1958, and that hadn’t stopped Penn. Many critics saw Corman’s film as a vicious, violent, low-budget rip-off of a vicious, violent, respectable Hollywood hit, and reviewed it accordingly.

2. Late-period Shelley Winters: As I never tire of delineating, the astonishing Miss Winters embodied the progression of postwar American misogyny toward openly sexual women. The first phase was “pathetic clinger who must be killed” (A Double Life, The Great Gatsby, A Place in the Sun). This was followed by “middle-aged matron who must be killed” (Night of the Hunter, Lolita ). This film kicks off her last era: “shrieking old harridan who must be killed”. She seemed to accept every role, no matter the budget, and she never phoned it in.

3. Early-period Robert DeNiro and Bruce Dern: Before finding fame as various powder-keg weirdos and otherwise dangerous dudes, DeNiro and Dern ran with Corman and Winters. DeNiro plays the drug-addict son whose best friend is his mother, especially when he rapes a girl. Dern plays a family friend and maniac based loosely on Alvin Karpis. The other prize sons are played by Don Stroud, Arthur Kimbrough, and Robert Walden, whose light-in-the-loafers portrayal pre-dated his prestigious run on TV’s Lou Grant. They all play off each other in wonderfully demented dysfunction.

4. First in Corman’s “Mama Trilogy”: In terms of producing movies based on real outlaws, Corman’s immediate follow-up was Martin Scorcese’s Boxcar Bertha (1972) with Barbara Hershey and David Carradine. If you haven’t heard it’s brilliant, you’ve been misinformed, as it foreshadows everything from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore to The Last Temptation of Christ, and the climax demonstrates the link between Corman and Taxi Driver.

Corman went on to produce two more crime capers of Southern-fried families: Steve Carver’s Big Bad Mama (1974) with Angie Dickinson (and William Shatner!), and Jonathan Demme’s Crazy Mama (1975) with Cloris Leachman and Ann Sothern. Carver’s film is an amusing throwaway that became so popular on cable TV, a sequel was made 13 years later. Demme’s satirical entry is a minor masterpiece. Did someone say masterpiece? That brings us to:

5. American Masterpiece: While budget-counters and other queasy types dismissed the film upon its release, at least a few critics have argued that it surpassed its model, Bonnie and Clyde. Among other qualities, this is so because Bloody Mama has a greater sense of humor and for being so pointedly unglamorized and unromanticized about criminals while retaining an evocative period atmosphere. Perhaps working in the rough and ready gutters of the film industry helps in understanding such marginal folks. Carlos Clarens’ excellent pioneering study, Crime Films, was among the first to dare suggest that Corman’s film is more successful artistically than Penn’s. With due humility, I am another.

RATING 8 / 10