Oh, it figures. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have every other film critic on the Net waxing nostalgic over the B-films of the 1970s and yet the one such B-film that keeps popping up in my mind is one of the few films that no cybercritic apart from me wants to remember.* I am referring, of course, to the 1979 effort The Lady in Red.
Why do I remember this film so fondly? Well, for one thing, it was one of the first B-films writer John Sayles wrote prior to becoming famous with more respectable efforts like Lone Star and Return of the Secaucus Seven. Moreover, it is his one attempt at writing an old-time gangster movie -- and quite an interesting attempt at that.
The movie has a somewhat memorable performance by actress Pamela Sue Martin, a former TV star who back in 1979 was most famous for playing girl detective Nancy Drew in ABC's The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries. In many ways, the character Ms. Martin plays in this movie -- farm girl Polly Franklin -- was similar to the character of Nancy Drew. Both characters were rather sweet, clever women with a capacity for getting in trouble. Yet they were different.
For one thing, Ms. Franklin came from a more rural environment than Ms. Drew. She had a more tragic story arc than Ms. Drew and she encountered problems Ms. Drew never ever encountered on the TV show. It has been said that this movie was Pamela Sue Martin's first attempt to change her image from that of the goody two-shoes-ish Nancy Drew, a change she would later complete when she got a role in the 1980s primetime soap opera Dynasty. Ms. Martin had several nude scenes throughout this film in which viewers saw far more of Ms. Martin than would have been possible in her Nancy Drew days. She also had some sex scenes as well, and it is no coincidence that that this movie used to be shown after hours when it hit the cable channels.
The character of Polly Franklin was based on Polly Hamilton, the real-life girlfriend of Depression-era gangster John Dillinger. Did the movie accurately portray Ms. Hamilton? That is a question for the viewer to decide.
As the movie starts out, Polly is singing the title song from the movie 42nd Street while she collects eggs from the chickens on her widowed father's farm, even going so far as to improvise a clumsy but heartfelt imitation of 42nd Street star Ruby Keeler's dancing. Movies obviously play a big part in Ms. Franklin's life, and since her father is not depicted as being a warm and loving patriarch, it is not hard to guess why.
When Polly goes into town, she can not resist parking by the local movie theatre which just happens to be showing 42nd Street. Assuming that no one is watching, Polly helps herself to two movie photos posted outside the theatre, only to find herself being watched by a slightly older lady in red. (Not necessarily the lady in red of the title, but a lady in red, for sure.) The woman proves to be part of a gang of bank robbers who may or may not be affiliated with notorious bank robber John Dillinger. She abducts poor Polly at gunpoint and forces her to stand on the getaway car's running board while her gang tries to outrun the local cops.
Poor Polly is eventually released unharmed, but her troubles do not end there. She is interrogated by the police, seduced by a reporter, and beaten by her father. And that is just in the movie's first half-hour. Eventually she runs away to Chicago, where she starts work in a garment factory and gets involved in a new mess of trouble. Every time she seems to be out of one crisis, she winds up in another, going from one bad situation to one far worse until she ends up working in a whorehouse. Circumstances beyond her control force the whorehouse to close, and Polly starts working a relatively honest job as a waitress. But then she gets involved with John Dillinger and then her life gets even more complicated.
She is falsely accused of being the infamous “lady in red,” the notorious femme fatale who lured Dillinger to his death in front of -- you guessed it -- a movie theatre. She resolves to avenge herself on the true culprit and along the way, decides to stage a bank robbery to get back at yet another nemesis. Eventually her life comes full circle and she finds herself pulling a gun on an innocent farm girl the same way a gun was once pulled on her. And guess what? By that time, she really is a lady in red. Do Polly's actions affect the farm girl in the same way the original Lady in Red's actions affected Polly? Sayles wisely prefers to leave the answer to that question to the audience's imagination.
At the end of the movie, Polly is seen hitching a ride to California. Are her troubles over at last? Probably not, but Sayles has enough compassion for his protagonist to give her a brief respite. And that is one of the reasons I like this movie more than the usual B-grade gangster film. Sayles' script shows a genuine compassion for Polly's plight that I rarely see in such movies.
That does not mean that the script does not have its share of clunkers. There are quite a few scenes that are way too melodramatic -- even by B-film standards -- not to mention a “I am Spartacus” moment in a garment factory that comes across as being far less realistic than it should be. Sayles never once seems to show a cop in this film who has the public's best interests at heart, and he is hardly subtle when depicting the misogynistic religious sentiments of Polly's father.
Yet he never once depicts things in such an unrealistic fashion that I find myself rolling my eyes and saying, “Oh, yes, stuff like this could never have happened back then.” It might not have necessarily happened to one person, but I often got the feeling that it did happen. After all, farm girls did get beaten by their fathers back then. Farm girls did tend to run away from home when they were beaten. And of course, runaways did -- and do -- tend to come to sticky ends in the big cities of any era. As much as one would like to think elsewise, the exploitation of female factory workers and prostitutes was not something Sayles just made up for the sake of the movie.
As for the direction, Lewis Teague is not likely to be numbered among the great film auteurs of our time. But like Sayles, he keeps things moving at a fast rate. After seeing all too many modern B-films that go on and on and on with storylines that are not quite as exciting as the filmmakers think they are, I was quite surprised at how fast-paced this film seemed. Sayles likes big speeches as much as any screenwriter, but he also knows something about how to pace a story so that I learn just enough about a character to have the story make sense without getting so bored that I start glancing at my watch.
The result is not likely to get a thumbs up from the Merchant-Ivory crowd, but then this movie was not aimed at that crowd. I like to think that the fact that this movie still rattles around in my memory more than a decade after I first saw it means something positive. Of course, it could simply mean that I have the same taste in movies as director Quentin Tarantino. But I prefer to be a bit more optimistic than that.
* Okay, Quentin Tarantino remembers it quite fondly, too, because he used it in a recent film festival, but he does not count as a cybercritic.