American International Pictures, 1970, 90 minutes
Cast: Shelly Winters, Don Stroud, Bruce Dern, Diane Varsi, Robert De Niro, Robert Walden, Clint Kimbrough, Scatman Crothers and Pat Hingle
Screenplay: Don Peters and Robert Thom
Producer: Roger Corman
Executive Producer: Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson
Director: Roger Corman
During the early 1930s, outlaws rampaged across much of the United States, robbing banks and kidnapping at will. The more famous outlaws included John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, and Alvin Karpis and the Barkers. Several law enforcement officers had already been put into graves by Karpis and Fred Barker but they decided to switch to the less-hazardous career of kidnapping after a member of their gang died during a hold-up of a bank. Their first kidnapping went smoothly, but the second attracted national attention because their victim was Edward Bremer, the son of Adolph Bremer, owner of the Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul and a big financial backer of President Roosevelt. The gang eluded the Bureau until Fred’s brother Dock was arrested by FBI agents on January 8, 1935 after his new wife boasted that her husband was a bank robber, and agents found evidence in his belongings that led them to Fred and Ma Barker at a lake house in central Florida. Both Barkers were killed in a shootout, and Hoover labeled Ma the brains of the gang to avoid accusations of murdering a grandmother with no criminal record. The fact that there was no evidence that Ma was involved in the crimes did not deter Hoover. When Karpis was finally tracked down and arrested on May 1, 1936, he was the last of the major Public Enemies to be captured, signalling the end of the Public Enemies Era.
Early in the film, an adolescent Katherine Barker is held down by her brothers so their father can rape her. Afterwards, she vows to have sons who would kill for her and she would kill for them. A grown-up Kate (Shelley Winters) is married to a poor farmer and has four sons: Herman, Fred, Lloyd and Arthur. When the sheriff accuses her sons of raping a neighbor’s daughter, she drives him away and then leaves town with the boys. Herman (Don Stroud), the eldest son, is a psycho who takes up with Mona (Diane Varsi), a prostitute. Brutal and incompetent, Herman and Fred (Robert Walden) are arrested after robbing a local dance. Fred is beaten by Kevin (Bruce Dern), his cellmate, who realizes that they are both turned on by the experience. Arthur (Clint Kimbrough) has become a book-reading alcoholic and Lloyd (Robert De Niro) is a glue-sniffer, but Ma leads them to rob a bank to raise money to get the boys out of jail. Released from prison, Freddie brings his friend Kevin. After graduating to heroin, Lloyd rapes a girl, who is drowned by Ma. The family of criminals switches to kidnapping but the boys beat their victim, Sam Pendelbury (Pat Hingle), so badly that he nearly dies. Despite the involvement of the FBI, the outlaws receive the ransom and go to Florida for a vacation. To the surprise of no one, Lloyd dies of an overdose, sending Ma closer to the edge of sanity. Meanwhile, Moses (Scatman Crothers), the handyman, sees Kevin and Herman firing a machinegun and calls the sheriff. Surrounded by many policemen, the remaining sons die one by one until Ma goes down fighting.
Although documentary footage of strikes and a massive march on Washington by the KKK are mixed into the film to give a flavor of the time, the crime wave and the rest of the Public Enemies are ignored.
The movie comes closest to reality when Ma puts hostages on the side of the car after the bank robbery, but the police still shoot, which never happened, that was the point of the hostages.
While the idea of a mother robbing banks with her sons has attracted the attention of previous screenwriters, it is a major mangling of the facts. Only two of the four brothers were part of the Barker-Karpis Gang, since Herman had killed himself to avoid capture several years earlier, and Lloyd was in prison. The real gang was much larger, and several members were friends who had grown up with the Barkers in Tulsa, Oklahoma during the oil boom. Credit for the gang’s destruction during the film’s climax should have gone to the FBI, which had employed massive resources to track them down.
Most important, Ma Barker was not the brightest spark, and Fred and Karpis were the driving force of the gang, which is why it was called the Barker-Karpis Gang, not Ma Barker and Sons Criminal Enterprise, Ltd. The myth that Ma was the brains of the gang is due to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s attempt to cover up the death of a grandmother after Bureau agents killed Fred Barker and his mother when they were vacationing in Florida. Rather than admit that the trigger-happy agents had made a mistake, he described her as a ruthless criminal mastermind, who had corrupted her sons.
Kevin seems to be modelled on Alvin Karpis, who became friends with Fred Barker in prison, and was a founding member of the Barker-Karpis Gang, although it seems likely that he was heterosexual since he and his girlfriend were about to have a baby when she was arrested.
While the opening scene is especially harsh and difficult to watch, the rest of the movie is a strange experience. Even compared to director Roger Corman’s other films, it is pretty weird. When Ma takes the teenaged boys away from the farm to avoid a rape charge, she leaves her husband behind, commenting that he was a good man but he could not make a living and he never mounted her right. Overwhelmed by the pressure of being the eldest son, Herman frequently cries in Ma’s arms. He also permits his prostitute girlfriend to screw his brothers in the backseat when they travel to a new town.
Visibly affected by the cold-blooded murder of the girl raped by Lloyd, Ma tells Mona that she will do what she has to to become free, and you can only be free when you are rich. After drowning the girl, Ma drags Kevin out of Freddie’s bed and into her own. Yep, it is pretty weird.
A third of the movie deals with the kidnapping, and Pat Hingle’s performance is simply a pleasure to watch. Even though he is tied up and blindfolded, he maintains his dignity and the boys become fond of him, possibly because they need a father figure. Realizing that the boys had let him see their faces, Ma orders them to kill him, but they only pretend to, disobeying her for the first time in their lives.
Even the final shootout is a spectacle, where they kill several cops in front of a group of picnicking spectators.
It was one of Robert DeNiro’s earliest films, but he was clearly still inexperienced, and is overshadowed by Bruce Dern and Don Stroud. Honestly, the film belongs to Shelly Winters, who dug deep inside herself to create Ma Barker, ruthless and full of rage, which is impressive since she had played a fading bombshell in Alfie only four years earlier. The primal scream that emerges when her last son dies during the shootout is frightening.
Despite the large number of good character actors, it is a nasty, disturbing film.
If you want to learn more about the Public Enemy Era, check out my Public Enemy Era Page.