One of the strongest entries in producer Roger Corman’s seemingly endless cycle of Depression-era crime films, The Lady in Red builds an intriguing story around the woman who accompanied famed ’30s gangster John Dillinger to the movies the night he was executed by federal agents. Written by John Sayles, who began his career crafting whip-smart scripts that elevated potentially exploitive Corman projects into the realm of quasi-respectability, The Lady in Red is, of all things, a politically driven character study with a feminist bent.
The story begins on a small farm, where Polly Franklin (Pamela Sue Martin) dreams idly about becoming a dancer in Hollywood movies. This doesn’t sit well with her harsh, pious father. Driving into town one day, Polly is grabbed by a gang of criminals and used as a human shield during a violent getaway. Suddenly charged with excitement, she lets go of her inhibitions and enjoys a tryst with a handsome older man. Returning home that night a changed woman, Polly rebels against her father’s abuse and flees for a new life. So begins an odyssey in which Polly is lied to and used by men, jealously attacked by vicious women, and befriended by the few kind females she encounters in the big, cruel world. Polly ends up in jail after an act of workplace defiance, and her only choice for securing early release is to accept work as a prostitute. This puts her into the orbit of assorted big-time criminals.
Yet by the time Polly meets John Dillinger (Robert Conrad), she’s actually come out on the other side of her lawless years and built an honest life of hard work and meager paychecks. The kicker, of course, is that she never realizes her new lover is America’s Most Wanted; he presents a fake identity and she’s learned not to ask too many questions about people. Alas, her romantic redemption is endangered by fate, because Polly’s friend and former madam, Anna (Louise Fletcher), discovers Dillinger’s identity and rats him out.
The Lady in Red is an epic compared to other Corman ’70s productions, simply because it covers so much time and traverses so many locations. Yet Sayles’ tough screenplay keeps the story close to the central theme of Polly’s sociopolitical awakening—although her weapons of choice are her body and, eventually, a machine gun, Polly is as rich as any of the characters in Sayles’ more overtly political films. This thematic content is heady stuff for a quickie period drama filled with sex scenes and shootouts, but the way Sayles inserts meaningful content proves the genius of Corman’s approach at its apex—so long as filmmakers delivered the B-movie goods on budget and on schedule, Corman was happy to let them transform drive-in flicks into “real” movies.
Lewis Teague, a former film editor who marked his second feature-length directorial assignment with this project, calls on his old cutting-room skills to give the movie more zip than one might expect—his detail shots of clothing and objects and surfaces lend credibility and texture. However, one should not extrapolate from all of this praise that The Lady in Red is great cinema; it’s merely a fine example of ambitious people capitalizing on the potentialities of a humble project. Even the actors seem imbued with a sense of purpose given the strong storytelling, because Martin puts her lean, pouty sexiness to good use—she’s a long way from the G-rated fluff of her Nancy Drew TV series—and the normally stilted Conrad, of The Wild, Wild West fame, is charmingly loose. Costar Fletcher, sporting a thick Eastern European accent, gives an effectively dimensional portrayal as a no-bullshit survivor.
The Lady in Red: GROOVY