Bright Lights Film Journal

They Done Her Wrong

I first fell in love with THE LADY IN RED (1979) when it turned up on late night cable around 1984. The fast moving tale of a young farm girl led into a life of crime, prostitution, communism, love and finally, bloody machine gun vengeance, it was everything an alienated teenager trapped in suburbia could want in a movie, rolled up tight into a lean 90 minutes. The lead actress, Pamela Sue Martin was gorgeous beyond description; the impression she made on me when she played NANCY DREW in the early 70s came roaring back up through my unconscious. I watched it 100 times in a row, then forgot about it. Now I just noticed the DVD is out of print and selling for over $125. Strange as it sounds, I don’t think I’ll be selling my copy… I don’t trust the Corman Empire to be remaking it anytime soon; what the hell is the matter with them anyway? Give us a decent print of CRAB MONSTERS!

Even the LADY IN RED DVD doesn’t look so good. It’s presented in full frame, blurry and discontent. But it hardly matters; in fact the VHS-ness of it all goes fine with the cheap period mis en scene! Produced by Julie Corman, directed by Lewis Teague (ALLIGATOR, CUJO) and written by John Sayles (BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, MATEWAN), it’s like one of those high pedigreed rich brainy cool chicks that ruin your life then jet back to Dartmouth while you die in the gutter! And you regret nothing!

That’s right. The same John Sayles/McTeague/Corman team that gave you ALLIGATOR first did this incredible yarn, and you can tell they loved it; so much time and attention (relatively speaking, this is Corman after all) is poured int into Sayle’s pinko screenplay and the crafty editing that it zips along at the speed of one of those post-GOODFELLAS stream-of-narration ADD biopics, (only LADY, see, don’t need no narration). Farm waif Polly (Martin) grows up fast–but not too fast–into a machine gun-toting badass, and does so with exciting and well modulated character development, in other words, believably!. Scenes and situations flow like cheap but tasty wine down an alabaster neck with a black velvet choker, from Polly’s gullible virgin surrender to a fast-talking sleazeball, through taking it on the lam with gangsters, working in a sweat shop and standing by her communist agitator roommate, to being jailed and then farmed off to a house of ill repute where she shacks up with, amongst others, Robert Forster!

And that’s all before she becomes “The Lady in Red” who was with Dillinger the night they shot him down. And after that, the real fun begins. In addition to the cathartic vengeance and valuable socialist lessons, subtextually it’s a big middle finger to the petty morality of the post-1934 production code gangster movies, and yet throughout its mayhem and amoral glee, LADY tells an abosrbing story, rich in period detail, with a large cast of characters, all deftly sketched, complexly (for this sort of film) motivated and interesting.

In addition to Martin, there familiar faces are Christopher Loyd as a sadistic gangster, Louise Fletcher as the madame, (she gets in a searing monologue toward the end)…and Corman regulars like Dick Miller. Robert Conrad is DIllinger and the only guy in the cast who can’t seem to get the TV out of his blood, but that’s okay; he dies quick.

So, good lord, with so much talent and beauty and sexy camp flowing through this (great editing too), why isn’t it recognized more widely as a cult classic? Hell, I couldn’t even find any screenshots to steal for this post.

My theory is it’s the title.

Google or remember the words “Lady in Red” and what do you get: that smoov Chris De Burgh song and its shady affiliations with the Gene Wilder comedy, The WOMAN IN RED (1984). Right there it gets confusing. If De Burgh had called his song “WOMAN IN RED” or something ANYTHING else – then maybe the 1979 LADY IN RED would be a cult classic to this day… as it very much deserves! According to IMDB, it’s been re-released as TOUCH ME AND DIE and GIN, SIN & BATHTUB GIN. Neither one gives the film a good patina – one seems like a morose rape-revenge thriller and the other a lame BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS cash-in. If I were doing marketing for this film on DVD, I’d rename it, POLLY WANTS A GUN. But it’s probably too late, it’s already dead by Wilder-De Burgh association… except of course for us few, hard, proud, pipe-hittin’ revivalist hoods! We got ya, Polly… come on back to us, in a cleaned-up anamorphic transfer, we’ll tell the people the truth, THE LADY IN RED STILL LIVES!