Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
When The Lady in Red was new it attracted a lot of positive criticism, but at that time Savant was
sick of Roger Corman Bonnie & Clyde imitations, such as Dillinger, Big Bad
Mama, and even Martin Scorsese's
Boxcar Bertha. Released right in the middle
of a spate of even less worthy period gangster nonsense like Big Bad Mama, The Lady in Red
is a gem that completely transcends its exploitation roots, thanks to a terrific script by then new-boy
John Sayles, and competent direction by Lewis Teague.
Farmgirl Polly Franklin (Pamela Sue Martin) flees her abusive father and lands in
a sewing sweatshop in Chicago, where the girls are exploited by sleazy manager Patek
(Dick Miller). One outspoken Jewish girl, Rose Shimkus (Laurie Heineman) is arrested by anti-red thugs,
and after Polly tries to hustle a cop at a dime-a-dance joint, the two women find themselves together
in jail. Tyrannical wardens humiliate and
harass the inmates, with the only way out being to become prostitutes; Polly takes the job to help
save the sick Rose. Thus she begins a life as a hooker in the house of Anna Sage (Louise Fletcher), a
Romanian immigrant hounded by the G-Men to inform on the organized crime kingpins who frequent her
girls. As the mob and the cops both extort high protection money, Polly's continued poverty is assured.
She briefly befriends a mysterious hit man (Robert Forster) but then Anna's house is closed down.
Working as a waitress in Anna's new diner, she falls in love with a pleasant gentleman known only as
Jimmy (Robert Conrad). He turns out to be none other than public enemy number one, John Dillinger,
ruining Polly's romantic plans.
What a difference a great script makes! As socially slanted as his later work, and packed with
interesting characterizations, The Lady in Red is about the only post-Bonnie & Clyde
rural gangster yarn (besides perhaps The Moonshine War) with more to peddle than
guns and sex. Sayles' characters are very likeable; Pamela Sue Martin makes a fine role out of
what in other hands would be a demeaning Big Doll House bimbo. Robert Conrad is nothing
special but more than adequate, while Louise Fletcher makes the traditional Lady in Red character
very compelling. There are a host of nice performances, big and small, orbiting around Pamela Sue ... it
just plays fine.
Depression-era crime movies either go for dumb thrills, or impose social theories on the period.
Sayles combines both approaches with taste and restraint. The gunfights are brief and brutal, and even
when making political points, Sayles' characters never become exponents of causes or mouthpieces
for author's messages.
This is perhaps the best film l've seen for explaining corruption in the thirties - why people would
identify with and champion cheap thieves, like Pretty Boy Floyd, over the cops. Polly's story
is a rather lurid exposé of practices in the dime-a-dance racket, and gets very explicit when
showing how a sportin' house operates. Sayles always has a very pronounced, very liberal social agenda,
and creates a credible world where every opportunity open to an honest soul is another hopeless pit of
exploitation. The sewing sweatshop is intolerable, and standing
up for what's right lands Polly in a prison hell where even she realizes that the only way out is to
become a prostitute. The prisons are run by greedy monsters, the cops are on the take and the feds care
about nothing except their newspaper headlines. Anna Sage isn't very likeable, until we hear of her
past experience as an immigrant, pulled off a boat from Eastern Europe directly into a prostitution ring.
So much for sentimental valentines to Ellis Island. Under these circumstances it's no problem at all to
root for Polly and her eventual one-woman crime wave.
When it comes to John Dillinger, Sayles very adroitly shuffles the deck of known facts. The actual 'Lady
in Red' turns out to be not Anna Sage but the clueless, duped Polly. Interestingly, Louise Fletcher
played the Black Widow character in Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us, one of her first films. What's
implied there about a woman willing to fink on friends is here fully elaborated. We don't blame Anna in
the slightest, and Polly doesn't much either.
Sayles pulls in several pleasing plot surprises that keep the story from becoming a downer.
If you can stand the crudity in the brothel sequences, the ending isn't at all depressing. The
hit man character played by an undcredited Robert Forster figures nicely in a good twist, that's
almost remindful of Sayles' Matewan.
New Concorde's DVD of The Lady in Red is a plain-looking full-frame transfer of a show that was
probably not all that carefully shot in the first place. The color is fine, showing off the commendable
attempt at period decor. Some of the cars aren't exactly original stock, and a few doorknobs
look rather new, but otherwise there's a good period feeling. A couple of shots of Model A's overturning are
lifted from Dillinger, and match very well. Good use is made of Warner musical songs - no twangy
bluegrass score here. 1
Some fairly accurate cast bios and a ho-hum trailer are the main extras. Of all
the New Concorde DVD releases, this and Corman's
The Intruder come the closest to being
'classic' quality movies. Highly recommended.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Lady in Red rates:
Packaging: AlphaPak case
Reviewed: May 17, 2002
1. But not the old Warner tune The Lady in Red, a song partially inspired by Dillinger's
demise and one of Busby Berkeley's very best musical numbers, from In Caliente and sung by
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson