Bright Lights Film Journal

Downward Mobility: On Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama

“You never could make a decent living … you never did mount me proper.”

Bloody Mama (1969) presents one of its central concepts — the violation of innocence in nature — in a brief opening montage. We see a young Kate Barker running through a lush forest. This idyllic image of childish exuberance is soon undercut by the presence of voices — male — and what appears to be an innocent encounter between child and nature becomes a frenzied attempt by the girl to avoid being raped. Kate’s protests are stifled by her father, who accuses her of not being “hospitable . . . Blood’s thicker than water.” This ironically beautiful image of incest and rape in a lush natural setting serts the tone for the entire film, which is based on juxtaposing apparently positive values (the cohesion of the family; the beauty, openness, and optimism of the American landscape) with apparently negative ones (murder, rape, incest, drugs). To put it another way, the film casts the Barkers’ struggle as an inversion of the American success story, pitting an intensely determined, violently antisocial, self-motivated, and self-enclosed group against the “civilized society” around them.

In a 1970 interview with Sight and Sound magazine,1 Corman described the Barkers as “pre-civilization; they came out of the hills, they were hillbillies, they had certain basic desires and drives that were only slightly modified by civilization.” The group is ruled, as so often in Corman’s work, by a powerful matriarch, the now-grown Kate “Ma” Barker (Shelley Winters), who has raised four “fine sons”: Herman (Don Stroud), Lloyd (Robert De Niro), Arthur (Clint Kimbrough), and Freddie (Robert Walden). The early post-credit scenes give us an idea of the family life of the Barkers. The setting is the same rural backwoods we saw before the credits, but now we see the family’s unassuming cabin in the forest. Kate is washing her naked, obviously sexually mature sons, lovingly sponging them down. The father lingers on the sidelines, deferring to Kate to deal with “the boys” as well as a sheriff who comes to accuse Herman, the oldest son, of raping a neighbor girl. The contradictions in Kate’s value system become quickly apparent when she kisses Herman for admitting to stealing a pie, but slaps one of the other boys for cursing. (This foreshadows the group’s — really, Kate’s — alternations between murder and religious observance.) She is ruthlessly protective of her sons, and equally powerful in her rejection of her husband. She has tremendous ambitions — “You’re gonna find me in a palace,” she says, a goal that must be achieved by what Robert Warshow called the movie gangster’s “drive for success . . . a success that is defined in its most general terms, not as accomplishment or specific gain, but simply as the unlimited possibility of aggression.”2 This concept is crucial in understanding the motivations of the Barkers, with Kate using the concept of “a palace” as a mythological symbol of wealth and status that can only be achieved through “unlimited aggression.” The Barkers don’t set limits on themselves — being individual enough to practice incest and rape and later murder on a regular basis — and have no clue how inimical these activities are to survival, much less success, in the world beyond their cabin.

Kate, the driving force for most of the film, knows she can’t achieve her goals until she gets rid of her husband, whose sole function for her appears to have been the production of their sons. “You never could make a decent living . . . you never did mount me proper,” she says, a multileveled comment that shows not only Kate’s rejection of the static, impoverished life she sees before her, but also the film’s graphic, unsentimentalized approach to sexuality. Kate can leave George Barker because he lacked ambition and left her sexually unsatisfied. Her denial of her husband’s place in the family scheme paradoxically both binds the group more closely and plants the seeds for their destruction, as the film constantly undermines their criminal ambitions with the ongoing search to replace the father that Kate has ejected from their lives.

As Tom Milne said in Sight and Sound, Corman “extends his frame of reference by setting Kate’s escape with her sons from the confines of Joplin, Missouri, against newsreel footage of the period. The world in which the Barkers play out their personal drama is one in which Mammon has fallen and God has risen.”3 The deceptive documentary quality Corman used in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre two years earlier reappears here in newsreel footage of Mickey Mouse, Aimee Semple McPherson, and the Ku Klux Klan — a neat encapsulation of the film’s mix of fantasy (the Barkers’ delusional mindset), religion, and violence. The footage also emblemizes the family’s search for success as typical of the rah-rah upward mobility celebrated as part of the American way of life. The Barkers quickly erase their anonymity in favor of a kind of “newsreel stardom” as they plunge into the maelstrom of success using, typically, the most immediate means available to them to attain it: robbery and murder.

Bloody Mama‘s bluntness in showing the sordid details of their life of crime, their hearty rejection of propriety and restraint, is evident during their first bank robbery, when they force a group of old women to strip to bra and panties and ride on the running board of the escape car through the city and into the country away from the police. Kate’s noisy upbraiding of these half-naked, silent women shows how far removed she is from their way of life. This scene could not have occurred in the film most often compared to Bloody Mama — Arthur Penn’s rosy-eyed Bonnie and Clyde. I mention this not merely to criticize Penn’s film but to show how much farther Corman is willing to go in treating similar material. In the Sight and Sound interview, he acknowledged the comparisons to Bonnie and Clyde but said, “My decision was not to romanticize or glorify, but to stay closer to what I felt the reality was. I had pictures of the Barkers and I knew what they looked like — they were not handsome or pretty.4 This realistic approach to the characters extends to their activities as well, and accounts for much of the film’s force.

The weak link in the group is hinted at early in the Barkers’ crime career, as Herman attacks and kills a man on a ferry boat. Kate offers comfort to her crying, overwrought son, showing the group’s penchant for purging rituals to curb any guilt about what they are doing. Herman is at once the strongest member of the group (excepting Kate) and the weakest. He’s the most consciously Oedipal of the sons, Kate’s most frequent bed partner, and the one son who seems most obsessed with his father — particularly his father’s eyes. During a jewelry store robbery he resists his automatic impulse to kill the clerk because “He’s got eyes like Pa’s!” Herman’s obsession reaches its peak during his encounters with the kidnap victim, Mr. Pendlebury, who also has “eyes like Pa’s.”

Aside from their ability to rob and kill, none of the sons fares well outside the enclosed world of Joplin. Kate’s intrusions into their lives, as if she’s trying to recreate their early family life in the outside world, increasingly alienate them. Because they cannot directly challenge their mother, all fall into self-destructive patterns. Freddie, a dim-witted masochist, falls in love with sadist Kevin Kirkman (Bruce Dern) in prison. Freddie’s fascination with Kevin’s brutality is graphically displayed as he fearfully yet eagerly awaits a belt-whipping from his boyfriend. Later, Kate sidetracks their relationship by demanding that Kevin sleep with her, an encounter Kevin greets with relish. Freddie reacts by burning himself with a cigarette. Arthur becomes a religious fanatic, retreating further from the family and reality as the film progresses. Kate’s attempts to remove the whore Mona (Diane Varsi) from the group are rebuffed by the only son powerful enough to challenge her — Herman. And Lloyd becomes a heroin addict and starts to wander.

The Barkers’ first major crime occurs on a body of water, when Herman and his brothers shake down riders on a ferry boat, then kill one of them. During a solitary walk to a lake near one of their hideouts, Lloyd meets a vibrant, beautiful swimmer named Rembrandt (Pamela Dunlap). After some small talk about her “funny name,” Lloyd propositions her. But he adds the caveat, “I take lots of dope.” This is probably the most poignant moment in a film that has few of them, with the proximity of the lake, the vitality and confusion of Rembrandt, and Lloyd’s pathetic words “I’d love to love you” intermingling to poetic effect. The seriousness of this talk between two strangers feels like a larger conversation between life and death. Lloyd’s oblique confession of impotence — “You don’t have to hit the jackpot every time” — finalizes what critic David Will called, at the time, “the most illuminating portrait of drug addiction Hollywood has produced.”5 Corman cuts from Rembrandt’s struggle to get out of Lloyd’s embrace to the same character bound and gagged in the hideout.

Kate’s decision to murder Rembrandt (right) because “she may know too much” seems motivated less by a need for efficient management of the group (Rembrandt knew nothing about the Barkers) than by her irritation that yet another of her sons is being “led astray” by a woman. Corman shoots the girl’s murder from underneath the tub of water where she’s drowned, in grisly, sadistic close-ups that intensify the audience’s sense of involvement and complicity with what is happening. We are not so much manipulated to sympathize with Rembrandt (though there’s an element of that) as we’re made to feel a part of a world that kills its innocents.

The use of water as a cleansing force recurs later in the film when the group finds yet another hideout by a lake. Several elements come together here, including the death of Lloyd and the ultimate demise of the Barkers. Herman’s utter brutality is reinforced when he decides to go alligator hunting and uses a live pig as bait. When he fires a shotgun to kill the animal, it tips off Moses (Scatman Crothers), who calls the police. This sequence is intercut with shots of Lloyd wandering in the grass near the lake, falling down, then dying from an overdose. Again nature is a placid, pretty, yet indifferent setting for what is ironically the most “natural” event in life — death.

Like Machine Gun Kelly (1958), Bloody Mama prominently features a kidnapping. In both cases, this crime precipitates the destruction of the gangster group. With the Barkers, the end begins with Herman’s increasing obsession with his missing father, which forces him to defy Kate and challenge her control. The kidnap victim is Sam Pendlebury (Pat Hingle), a soft-spoken “millionaire,” as Kate describes him (he denies this), who is kept in a barn with his eyes covered in bandages. The important conversations in these scenes occur between Kate and Sam, and Herman and Sam. The victim admonishes Kate for her “unladylike” behavior, and she, in typical response, attempts in vain to seduce him. Herman is annoyed by Sam’s easy, frank conversation with him, particularly when the older man calls him “Sonny boy,” a too-appropriate nickname. Sam grasps the subtle dynamics of the group and exploits them for his own use by immediately slipping into a substitute father role: “If I was your father, I’d take you over my knees.” Kate pays tribute to him in the language she used to reject her husband: “You’re a proper, grown-up man, Sam. You’re getting to us . . . but we’re getting to you, too.” In these scenes, which are among the most peaceful in the film, we see the faltering re-creation of the Barkers; in a startling moment, Kate covers Sam’s eyes in an attempt to change his identity, to make the fantasy of the returned father more credible. Herman is particularly hopeful about this re-creation, repeatedly demanding to see Sam’s eyes. When this does happen, he’s almost beside himself: “I knew it! I think I’m going right out of my mind! He’s got Pa’s eyes!” Herman’s perception of Sam as his father precludes the possibility of following Kate’s demand that he kill Sam. Instead, the two walk into the woods, and Herman fires a few shots in the air. They shake hands before separating.

Despite their economic successes, the group was in fact doomed as soon as they left Joplin. The things that Kate encouraged and indulged in as an autocrat in her own small world were unthinkable beyond it. The film marks their decline throughout, in the Barker boys’ inability to cope with relationships beyond Ma, in Rembrandt’s unnecessary death, in the departure of Mona. One of only two characters (with Kevin Dirkman) who successfully penetrates the group, Mona drifts out of their lives with the same world-weary detachment with which she entered.

Increasingly decimated in the last scenes — having lost Mona, Lloyd, the real father and the fake one — the remaining Barkers retrench for the final shootout. Corman uses both hand-held and stable camera during this ultraviolent climax. Freddie, the most childlike of the Barkers, sacrifices himself early by running out of the house into open gunfire. Arthur is shot to death inside the house. Kate kills Kevin as he tries to retreat. Herman, in a successful completion of the recurring eye motif, shoots himself in the face. Kate’s screaming reaction to the death of her sons and her world ends with her own death.

One aspect of this scene was improvised when a large group of anonymous picknickers spread tablecloths on the grounds surrounding the house. Corman has cited the “realistic” aspect of this conceit, having real people as an audience for the shooting. He was told by the police that many shoot-outs attract large crowds eager to watch the mayhem. Another explanation for the existence of shots of “normal and typical citizens” enjoying the Barkers’ annihilation can be found in the film’s view of a society not much better than the criminals who attack it.

Note: This review appeared in different form in Roger Corman (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985).

  1. “Interview with Roger Corman,” Sight and Sound 39 (August 1970), 183. []
  2. Robert Warshow, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Partisan Review 15 (February 1948), 243. []
  3. Tom Milne, “Bloody Mama,” Sight and Sound 39 (August 1970), 183. []
  4. “Interview with Roger Corman,” 184. []
  5. David Will, Roger Corman: The Millennic Vision (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Film Festival, 1970). []