By Linc Leifeste | October 4, 2014
Director: Roger Corman
Writers: Don Peters (story), Robert Thom (screenplay, story)
Starring: Shelley Winters, Pat Hingle, Don Stroud, Diane Varsi, Bruce Dern, Clint Kimbrough, Robert De Niro, Robert Walden, Scatman Crothers
What a thoroughly fascinating train wreck Roger Corman’s 1970 gangster movie Bloody Mama is. I mean, this is a Roger Corman film so you know you’re not going to get The Godfather, but you have a cast that includes Shelley Winters as Kate “Ma” Barker, a young Robert De Niro as one of her sons and also includes Pat Hingle, Bruce Dern and Scatman Crothers. A Corman exploitation film this is, a B-movie cast this is most certainly not. Alternating wildly between masterfully acted exchanges and stilted dialogue, between hammy hillbilly hijinks and well-choreographed and well-shot action sequences, this is a film that is alternately disturbing, provoking, artistic and trashy, but one that’s consistently impossible to look away from.
Based very loosely on the actual Ma Barker gang, Shelley Winters gives a mesmerizing, deliciously over the top performance as the iron-willed matriarch of the Barker gang. Her performance is at times stunningly powerful, at times delightfully ludicrous, but always riveting as she owns every scene she appears in. A hillbilly den mother, the movie opens with a scene of a youthful Kate Barker being chased through the woods by her brothers before being raped by her father. As we’re introduced to her adult home life with her four sons it’s via the image of her hand-washing her naked adult sons and it’s quickly apparent that she’s carrying on her father’s tradition of keeping it in the family. There’s a husband/father in the scene but he’s clearly emasculated and a spectator and soon Ma and her sons leave him behind.
Ma Barker’s got serious class issues and she’s intent on moving up by robbing and stealing, seemingly unaware that no matter how much success they might have in their thievery, a family band of incestuous, murderous bandits are probably pretty limited in their class mobility. And what a band it is. Her eldest son Herman (Don Stroud), is the strongest willed of the brothers but also the weakest in certain ways, obsessed with his father, incapable of controlling his violent temper and most prone to needing and desiring Ma’s loving caresses to calm him down. Fred (Robert Walden) is the smallest of the brothers, and introduces his violent jailhouse lover, Kevin (Bruce Dern), to the family after a prison stint. Arthur (Clint Kimbrough) seems to become every more removed from the family as the film progresses. And then there’s drug-addicted Lloyd (Robert De Niro), who is an ever growing mess as his addictions increase.
The Barkers’ first serious crime involves the brothers shaking down a ferry operator and a fellow passenger, who Herman senselessly kills. There’s also a wildly entertaining bank robbery that involves Ma Barker playing a game of “Simon says” with her Tommy gun playing the role of Simon. At one point, a beautiful young woman makes the mistake of approaching Lloyd and before long she too has been murdered. The Barkers also hatch a plan to kidnap a social elite, Sam Adams Pendlebury (Pat Hingle), and hold him for ransom but Ma loses control of her gang when she orders the boys to murder Pendlebury. They’ve grown fond of the man and rebel, with Herman physically assaulting his mother to establish his dominance. On the run, the family heads to Florida, where things quickly unravel. Lloyd overdoses, Ma rages, rants and raves and Herman goes alligator hunting using a stolen baby pig as bait and his Tommy gun. Before long the police have the family surrounded and there’s a massive gun battle which none of the Barkers walk away from.