Monday, 9 February 2009

Ma Barker's Killer Brood (1960)

Ma Barker's Killer Brood tells the story of infamous Depression-era gangster Ma Barker and her equally infamous sons. Well actually it’s almost entirely fiction, but it doesn’t do to let anything as tedious as facts get in the way of a fun story! And this is most definitely a fun story.

Ma Barker wants her boys to have all the good things she missed out on when she was growing up. But opportunities to make honest money are scarce, so Ma encourages her sons into a life of crime. They start by robbing the collection plate at their local church. Her husband doesn’t approve of this kind of criminality but Ma despises him as a weakling and soon dumps him. Ma and her boys embark on a violent crime spree, in the course of which they become involved with just about every other famous Depression-era gangster, from Machine Gun Kelly to John Dillinger.

Herman, the eldest of the Barker boys, would really have preferred to continue with his violin lessons rather than rob banks, but Ma has no patience with weakness and Herman has little choice other than to join his brothers. Ma’s ruthlessness reaches a peak when she disposes of her second husband by forcing him to play Russian roulette in a surprisingly chilling scene. In fact for a 1960 movie Ma Barker's Killer Brood is exceptionally violent. When Herman can’t bring himself to shoot an armoured car guard his mother not only drives her car into the unfortunate guard but then calmly runs over his prone body.

The production values are low, but the dialogue is priceless. Ma’s exchanges with Machine Gun Kelly’s girlfriend are especially memorable. Veteran character actress Lorene Tuttle relishes the opportunity to play a rare starring role, going completely over-the-top as Ma Barker. Imagine a female version of Jimmy Cagney in White Heat. It’s a delightful performance.

Writer-director Bill Karn produced a classic piece of exploitation cinema with this bizarre little offering. Highly recommended for those who love trash cinema.

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