Roger Corman gave Martin Scorsese artistic freedom as long as gore and tits kept coming, so Scorsese seized this exploitation cheapie for director-as-smuggler potential. His Depression-era South is a cinephile's view, basically a 1933 William Wellman barnstormer where the Oakie camps, robberies, and chain gangs are hand-picked for genre iconography and storyboarded mayhem. Staccato montage introduces the heroine (Barbara Hershey) as a barefoot tomboy scratching her thigh as her dust-cropping father goes down in flames, rhythmic dissolves find her napping on a haystack, freshly devirginized by David Carradine, prole agitator and "notorious Bolshevik." He's joined in jail by a Yankee gambler (Barry Primus) and a harmonica-playing gentle giant (Bernie Casey); Hershey busts them out and they casually become a gang when the getaway car breaks down and the mail train chugs by. Carradine sees the descent from radical to outlaw as a perversion of his original ideals, a stance possibly shared by Scorsese, taking an American International assignment after the botched shoot of The Honeymoon Killers. It is, in any case, far from John Cassavetes' "piece of shit" verdict, in fact it is a Scorsese work from top to bottom, shot with a camera that seeks out the pulse of every instant: A deck of cards flicked into the air is splintered into three or four rapid shots, a track-dolly attaches itself to a shotgun blast to the chest, the décor in a dust-bowl whorehouse is out of Visconti. Modernist analysis is held at a society-party holdup that positions Carradine face to face with his father John (or New Hollywood restlessness vs. Grapes of Wrath classicism, rather), the finale imagines the Paradise and heralds the Judgment, brought on by a malevolent Laurel & Hardy pair. Scorsese is already a creature of passion, and a detail (a sign reading "Nazarene") pays off startlingly in fierce bloodletting, a dilating delirium to be picked up in Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ. With Victor Argo, David Osterhout, and Harry Northup.
--- Fernando F. Croce