When she was a young teenage girl, Kate Barker (Shelley Winters) was often raped by her father with her brothers holding her down for him, but whenever this happened she took his adherence to blood ties to heart and vowed to have a family of her own, all sons. She did grow up and, years later, she did indeed have four sons and they were all very loyal as she would mother them to the point of obsession. However, they were far from angels and when the sheriff came a-calling one day with charges of gang rape against all four of them, Ma Barker thought it was time to up sticks and leave - which she did, taking her offspring and leaving her husband behind...
Often when real life criminals are given their own biopics, the charge of glamorising their misdeeds is leveled against the filmmakers. But nobody could accuse director Roger Corman of handling the story of Ma Barker and her gang that way in Bloody Mama, as this lot are as scuzzy and reprehensible as they get, and no attempt to make them into folk heroes appears to have even been considered. How unlike Bonnie and Clyde, the film which inspired this rash of vintage-set gangster movies, and here it's as if the film was made as an antidote to all that "They're young, they're in love and they kill people" romanticising which was part and parcel of the Arthur Penn work.
Certainly the ending of Bonnie and Clyde hammers home how ugly the violence involved was, but it still built those characters up as martyrs to the authorities' bloodlust, whereas here the Barkers have no such airs. I'd like to be able to say that this makes for a better film, but the truth is that much of this looks as if Corman and his screenwriters, Robert Thom, had drawn up a list of depravity they wished to include, giving each of the brothers a personality quirk to make them more colourful into the bargain, and turned the whole dubious tale into a series of set pieces in the worst taste - for 1970, anyway, this would have looked pretty strong stuff and in Britain it was heavily cut.
Oddly though, in spite of it wallowing in sickmaking incident, Bloody Mama never turns truly offensive, thanks to a tone of pantomime hovering over the proceedings. Winters especially has no qualms about chewing the scenery, whether she's grabbing a Tommy gun and letting loose with the bullets or indulging in such craziness as sleeping with her screen son in an incestuous twist. The sons are scarcely more restrained, with Robert De Niro embracing his role as a junkie who brings home a young girl he meets for torture and eventual murder (this is left up to Ma, who is portrayed as the brains of the outfit) and Don Stroud proving himself one of the best heavies around as the psychopathic Herman, who looks for his victims to have his "father's eyes".
Later, Bruce Dern is roped into the gang of bank robbers after he meets Freddie (Robert Walden), sexually assaults him to make him his "boyfriend", and ends up almost as dangerous as Herman. There's even a moll with Diane Varsi as Mona, Herman's girlfriend, but all bow to Winters in her over the top, larger than life yet always believable seizing of her character. Naturally, the idea of the actual Kate Barker being much like this is far from the truth, in spite of the title card which tells us any similarity between this film and the real people is purely intentional. Really she was more likely to cook her sons' gang their dinner than go out on a raid with them, but that doesn't make for exciting drama, and Corman tries to crowbar in some social commentary by using archive footage to show the whole country was as round the bend and corrupt as the Barkers. This makes Bloody Mama very much of its time, and it could have tightened up those rambling dialogue scenes, but if it's not as enjoyable as it could have been it does go further than many would have dared in 1970. Music by Don Randi.