The Lady In Red occupies a unique place in New World Pictures history. Thematically, it’s part of the string of female-driven crime pictures that Roger Corman began with Bloody Mama but it arrived much later than the other films in that group. Despite having the requisite amounts of action and sex, it’s actually much more interested in drama and feminist themes (the latter were always featured in Corman’s girl-gangster movies but rarely as upfront as they are presented here). In fact, you could say that this film is actually an indie flick disguised as an exploitation vehicle.
A key part of the film’s unique nature lies in a smart, skillfully rendered script by John Sayles right before he began his indie filmmaking career. The story focuses itself around the travails of Polly Franklin (Pamela Sue Martin), a Hollywood-obsessed farm girl who runs away from her abusive religious nut father during the 1930’s to find her dreams in the big city. Unfortunately, what she finds is poverty, slave-labor work and a society that treats women like second-class citizens.
After dead-end gigs in a sewing mill and a dance hall, Polly winds up in jail. Head guard Tiny Alice (a pre-Porky’s Nancy Parsons) leans on Polly when her only friend becomes ill and arranges for Polly to work in a bordello to help pay for her care. Polly makes the best of her predicament, even making the occasional friend like hired gun Turk (an uncredited Robert Forster). The bordello eventually closes but Polly continues to work for its former madam, immigrant Anna Sage (Louise Fletcher), when she opens a diner. At that point, Polly falls for a customer who just happens to be John Dillinger (Robert Conrad) – and the tragedy that follows makes her realize she must get tough to get ahead in life.
As the above synopsis indicates, The Lady In Red is more of a character study than an exploitation vehicle. There are period scenes of gunplay and some casual nudity but they’re never really dwelt upon. Instead, the focus is Polly’s journey from a preyed-upon innocent to a resourceful, independent woman who is strong enough to fight for what she deserves. Along the way, Sayles explores the different ways that different women cope with the troubles caused by men and the relationships that they form with each other as they try to get by a male-dominated world. He also keeps the material from getting dull by keeping the scenes short, focused and filled with snappy dialogue.
The Lady In Red also boasts a strong cast of familiar faces who clearly enjoy getting to work with quality material. Martin is almost shockingly good as the heroine, giving a natural, relaxed performance and conveying the character’s growth in a believable, sympathetic style. Fletcher is also quite good as a character who is essentially the polar opposite of Polly, a woman who has allowed her misfortunes to make her predatory and calculating (she gets a great, bitter monologue about her travails as a young immigrant). Conrad offers macho charm in his extended cameo as Dillinger while Parsons steals just about every scene, giving her character a sadistic glee that makes her real hiss-worthy villain (that said, Christopher Lloyd gives her a run for the money with his turn as a sadistic mobster). Keep an eye out for Forster: he only gets three scenes but he carries them with the easy grace of a pro.
Finally, the film is helmed with unobtrusive flair by editor-turned-director Lewis Teague. He captures the period flair nicely with spot-on costumes and production design, not to mention a flavorful James Horner score that amusingly uses the theme song from 42nd Street as its main motif. He gets consistently strong performances from both his main players and the background cast, giving them plenty of room to do justice to Sayles’ script while he keeps the scenes rolling at a nice clip. When the action scenes come, they’re constructed with the rhythm and punch you’d expect from a former editor.
In short, The Lady In Red is a sleeper that deserves more notice. It’s also the kind of Corman flick that could win over film fans who don’t normally go for drive-in fare.