Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama is loosely based on the true story of Kate ‘Ma’ Barker and her criminal offspring, whose exploits in the American Midwest from the early 1920s to the mid-1930s led to avid media coverage and inspired James Hadley Chase to pen his 1939 novel No Orchids for Miss Blandish, which concerned a mob controlled by their matriarch. Their crime spree lasted 15 years, although the pace of Corman’s account, and the few concessions made to the ageing process, suggest a shorter timescale. His film also embraces the myth of ‘Machine Gun Ma’ as the head of the operation, a legend that was reportedly cultivated by the FBI in order to justify their eventual killing of an elderly woman.
An unsettling opening scene, in which a teenage Ma is raped by a gang led by her father, is one of Corman’s few attempts to speculate on the roots of her attitude towards society, with the director preferring to revel in the amoral activities of her outlaw family, and to evoke period trappings on a typically shoestring budget. Robert Altman’s Thieves like Us (1974) provides a more authentic snapshot of criminal life in Depression-era America, but Corman’s film is of interest to an audience beyond his core following of cultists, despite its inaccuracies. As Ma and her four sons - Herman, Fred, Lloyd and Arthur - travel across the United States, committing crime and occasionally lying low under the alias of ‘The Hunters’, they pick up two associates: Mona, a prostitute who has become Lloyd’s girlfriend, and Kevin (Bruce Dern), a sexually sadistic addition to the gang who ‘befriends’ Fred during a term behind bars. Their freewheeling lifestyle is curtailed by an overly ambitious kidnapping, which leads to a brutal shoot-out with the law.
Shelley Winters takes centre-stage as the domineering Ma, and Don Stroud is genuinely threatening as Herman, who becomes her second-in-command and ultimately overthrows his own mother to take control of the gang. Bloody Mama functions as a satire of the American family unit, with Ma effectively adopting the roles of both father and mother; keeping them afloat economically by masterminding robberies and kidnapping plots, and administering ‘tough love’ by physically scolding her brood whenever they have disappointed her, yet also comforting Herman when he has experienced one of his ‘bad moments’ and insisting that he ‘sleep with Ma’ to avoid having bad dreams. Herman is truly a product of her unconventional upbringing, a violent thug who is even described by his girlfriend as a ‘freak’; yet he is capable of moments of tenderness, allowing his lover to leave for Miami rather than risk her being killed in the inevitable climactic bloodshed.
However, it is a young Robert De Niro as Lloyd who offers the most fully-formed characterisation, one that runs the gamut from amusing to disturbing, to strangely sympathetic as he struggles to fit in with his more criminally proficient siblings. Lloyd becomes chemically dependent at an early age, initially getting high from sniffing glue while putting together plastic models, but is soon injecting dope, and De Niro reportedly shed 30 pounds for the role. His stoned seduction of an attractive female swimmer initially plays as an exercise in deadpan humour, but events take a more sinister turn as he pins the girl down to the deck and then kidnaps her, tying her to one of the beds in the family holiday home. ‘She was so cute I had to take a shot at her’, is his feeble justification for his actions. Lloyd is less volatile than Johnny Boy, the self-destructive character who would provide De Niro with his breakthrough in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), but he is as equally misguided. Despite being part of a tightly-knit family, Lloyd is arguably one of the many socially alienated loners, prone to moments of intense introspection, that the actor portrayed during his 70s peak.
It is often difficult to evaluate Corman as a director, and to pinpoint his authorial signature, as his cinematic legacy is forever intertwined with the filmmakers who served their professional apprenticeships within his ‘B’-movie factory; directors such as Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Jonathan Demme, who would re-invigorate the Hollywood mainstream in the 1970s and the early 1980s. Corman stages his action scenes efficiently, identifying the marketable attributes of the gangster film, yet his subversive spirit does filter through to elevate Bloody Mama above the status of a low-budget programmer to something more memorable, even if the film is, at times, an uncomfortable hybrid. Consequently, Bloody Mama has much in common with Corman’s Death Race 2000 (1975): it is a fast-moving exploitation item, yet one which exhibits some finely observed, almost throwaway, satire at the expense of American society. These elements of Bloody Mama are more interesting today than the still shocking scenes of violence that were the film’s main selling point on its initial release.