The Lady in Red - (1979)
The John Sayles-scripted, Julie Corman-produced, Lewis Teague-directed 1978 gangster opus “Lady in Red” (aka “Touch Me and Die”) is my candidate for most ambitious film ever made at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Not only do I think this thirties era epic about Polly Franklin (Pamela Sue Martin) the fictional brothel Prostitute who inadvertently leads John Dillinger to his death in front of the Biograph Theatre is Sayles best screenplay, I also think it’s the best script ever written for an exploitation movie.
Which on one hand sounds like a grandiose claim to make, but on the other hand…is it?
Exploitation movies have a rogues’ gallery of classics, and near classics, and even anti-classics, as well as many instances of directorial tour-de-force. Usually performed on a budgetary shoestring, that only makes their achievement more triumphant. However the scripts themselves are rarely the strongest element of exploitation movie classics. There are some stand out examples. The be-bop pizzazz of Charles B. Griffith’s screenplays for Roger Corman (especially the early ones). Of course everyone would cite “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Bucket of Blood”, but I equally love “Rock All Night.”
R. Wright Campbell’s script for Corman’s “Machine Gun Kelly,” the best script Corman ever shot, including those written by Richard Matheson and Robert Towne. And on the same American-International Pictures double bill as “Machine Gun Kelly” was Stan Shpetner’s lively script for William Witney’s “The Bonnie Parker Story.” Which not only predates Benton and Newman’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” it predates David Lynch’s “Wild At Heart” as well (including flame dissolves). It’s the dialogue in Shpetner’s script that really sings, and places alongside other grindhouse dialogue classics like Jackie Moran’s script for Russ Meyers “Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!” and Mel Wells beatnik slang dialogue polish in Jack Arnold’s “High School Confidential.”
Shpetner, who spent most of his career as a producer, only wrote three produced screenplays, but his second one for William Witney is a doozy as well. The 1958 World War II action adventure “Paratroop Command.” It’s the best of American-International Pictures World War II potboilers. (Burt Topper’s “Hell Squad” is pretty good too), but I think it’s a little more than that. It contains a realism that sets it apart from most World War II movies of the fifties (Sam Fuller’s films aside). To compare it to “Platoon” might be going a bit too far, but only a bit. Because director Witney spent as much time in World War II as Oliver Stone did in Vietnam, and not making movies with the Mark Harris bunch. Fighting the war. But what “Paratroop Command” completely predates is the early sixties beloved classic World War II TV show “Combat.” Even to the point of starring Combat’s “Kirby” Jack Hogan, a William Witney regular (“Paratroop Command”, “The Bonnie Parker Story”, and “The Cat Burglar”).
And, yes, in standout B-movie scripts, I suppose you could include Eddie and Mildred Dein’s Eugene O’Neill play by way of a 50’s commie espionage thriller, “Shack Out On 101.” The first two scripts of Romero’s Living Dead trilogy. Bobby Poole’s uncredited Scarface remake “The Mack” (instead of Italian gangsters in Chicago battling over bootleg beer, it’s black pimps in Oakland fighting over pussy and power). The brutal simplicity of John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s original “Halloween” screenplay. The fact that Carpenter and Hill turned Michael Myers “The Shape” into Laurie Strode’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) brother in the first sequel was an awful idea, and ruins one part of the great premise of the first film. The seemingly randomness of Michael Myers selection of Laurie as the object of his…affection? Also the stupid brother angle casts all the other “Halloween” sequels as fruit from a poison tree, including Dwight Little’s superior “Halloween 4” and Steve Miner’s superlative “Halloween H2O.”
And before I get to “The Lady In Red”, there’s John Sayles’ two witty riffs on Spielberg’s “Jaws,” Joe Dante’s “Piranha” and Lewis Teague’s “Alligator.”
“Piranha” for its cleverness, and the true gonzo gruesomeness of its bloody climax at a summer camp for small children. The movie seems to relish the idea of putting chubby legged and armed little tikes in the pathway of vicious razor-sharp teethed little fish. In the bloody inner tube floating free-for-all climax, we see many a child chewed alive one razor-sharp bite at a time. Including one unfortunate little girl who seemingly gets her crotch burrowed into by one aggressive piranha with an agenda all its own.
Also at the climax “Piranha” has a suspense beat worthy of the Spielberg original. Bradford Dillman, who’s quite good in a rare lead, usually around this time he made a living yelling at Dirty Harry, or playing priggish two star generals (“Meteor”), or priggish gold mining executives (“Gold”). However in “Piranha,” in his sexy beard and woodsy flannel shirt, Dillman comes across as a pretty virile leading man. And with his over enunciated way of gritting out his lines through clenched teeth he strikes a B-movie Charlton Heston pose (a pose that looks good on him). Dillman, the film’s hero, has to turn the wheel to a valve that closes the waterway from the dam to the ocean (the super Piranha can live in both fresh water and salt water, so if they get to the ocean…that’s it). Only the dam has flooded and the wheel for the valve is located under water. So Brad must go diving in his red flannel shirt, find the valve, turn the wheel, all as the little killer fish descend on him attacking his flesh. Very exciting.
I’m sure Sayles original script was pretty witty, but smart aleck filmmaker Joe Dante was always more comfortable when he could engage in Mad Magazine style satiric humor. And by the end of “Piranha” it feels both like a satire on Jaws rip-offs, and an exciting bloody Jaws rip-off in its own right. And Sayles script for Lewis Teague’s “Alligator” is even better. I will always be indebted to “Alligator” because it’s due to that film that I chose Robert Forster to play Max Cherry in my film “Jackie Brown.” Now some have theorized Pam Grier’s character Jackie Brown is actually her character in “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown” only older and wiser and in a dead end job, beaten down by a hard life. Normally I like this type of thinking. And I understand the temptation. But I saw it more as a continuation of the actress’ persona than the actual characters from the earlier movies. Besides, does anybody really think the young Jackie Brown was blowing off drug dealers heads with a sawed off shotgun, leading black revolutionaries, and cutting off Peter Brown’s penis? On the other hand, the Sayles-scripted, Forster-portrayed cop who battles the giant Alligator in the movie of the same name could very well be the same man who became a bail bondsmen and opened up a bail bonds office in Carson, California, seventeen years later. All the way down to the jokes they make about Forster’s thinning hair in the first movie, to his visible hair plugs in the second (“When I look in the mirror, it looks like me”).
But all these examples seem fully realized by their directors and their performers. But then again these filmmakers Roger Corman, William Witney, Russ Meyer, Jack Arnold, George A. Romero, Joe Dante, and John Carpenter are some of the most innovative directors of this type of cinema that ever lived. But “The Lady in Red” is a somewhat different story. And that’s not a slight on the film that Lewis Teague directed, or Julie Corman produced, or Pamela Sue Martin’s performance (she’s sensational).
The movie itself is tremendously entertaining. It holds up beautifully to repeated viewings (I’ve completely lost count how many times I’ve seen it since I saw it at The Rolling Hills Twin Cinema the week of its initial Los Angeles engagement). Nevertheless, John Sayles wrote a big screen big budget gangster epic, with one of the best female characters of any movie of the second half of the seventies. And while Teague and Corman pull it off, they do it by hanging on for dear life. Sayles’ script deserved a much bigger canvas, a much, much bigger budget, and a much, much, much longer shooting schedule. With all the limitations imposed on them, Teague’s film is a miracle. But making a classic out of this material shouldn’t have required a miracle. Just talent and time. Teague and the cast provided the former, but New World Pictures could only provide so much of the latter. Sayles script is much better then the one Sergio Leone shot for his period gangster epic “Once Upon A Time In America”. I’ve always imagined a world where Robert De Niro plays Robert Conrad’s John Dillinger, and Harvey Keitel plays Robert Forster’s Turk. If it sounds like I’m advocating for a big time director to stage a proper production of Sayles’ script, I am. David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence, I’m talking to you.
There really is no female-led feature film set in the thirties quite like “The Lady in Red.” Or better said, it’s like five thirties set female-led features rolled into one huge Russian novel of a movie (shot on a shoestring in four weeks). The journey that our heroine, Polly Franklin, takes from humble beginning to blood-soaked end manages to cover every different female archetype of the depression. Farmer’s (abused) daughter, deflowered innocent, sweat shop worker, taxi dancer, prison inmate, brothel prostitute, greasy spoon waitress, romantic lover (of John Dillinger no less), all leading to her last position, ringleader of a bank robbery gang. As Polly hops from position and circumstance, she also illustrates just how out of reach the American dream was for a poor working girl in the big city.
But this isn’t just a Chicago-set tale of female subjugation like Japan’s “The Life of Oharu.” Polly’s journey is sporadically littered with small triumphs and impressive demonstrations of strength. She may spend most of the film behind the eight ball, yet she never gives in to victimization. Polly has a plethora of tormentors throughout the picture. Tiny Alice (the cruel women’s prison matron, who introduces herself to the fresh fish with the line; “I’m Tiny Alice, and from now on I rate top billing in all of your nightmares”), Frognose (the even crueler Chicago gangland leader), the weasel newspaper reporter played by Bobby Hogan who, like a heroine in a Thomas Hardy novel, sets poor Polly on her path of degradation in the first place, and the maggot sweat shop foreman played to one-note perfection by a perfectly loathsome Dick Miller. And Pamela Sue Martin’s Polly eventually stands up to and triumphs over all of them. Sayles not only takes Polly through every archetype of women’s roles of the thirties, like I did with The Bride in the Kill Bill movies, he takes her through almost every thirties film genre. Working girl in the big city story, story of a prostitute, female convict in a prison picture, love story, and finally gangster picture.
The story starts when Polly, the young daughter of a farmer, goes to town and accidentally finds herself the hostage in a thirties bank robbery (with a terrific Mary Woronov as the Bonnie Parker-like bank robber). She’s interviewed and exploited by the newspaper press (scumbag Bobby Hogan). And after one beating too many by her religious fanatic father, she runs away hitching a ride to the big city, Chicago. At which point Sayles has her go from one oppressive environment to the next. Sweat shop worker, then taxi dancer, where she’s busted for prostitution and sent to prison and put under the thumb of women in prison matron from hell, Tiny Alice, played like a villainous ham sandwich by Nancy Parsons (she was Bulliela Balbricker in Bob Clark’s “Porky’s”). Parsons in this, “Porky’s,” and her role as part of Farmer Vincent’s brother-sister act in “Motel Hell” was both hideous and strangely sexy. She didn’t just play battle-axes. There was a sensual femininity underneath her ogres. When Polly’s released from the joint, through plot circumstances she’s forced to join the whorehouse of Hungarian immigrant Anna Sage (Louise Fletcher), Chicago’s biggest madam. After the whirlwind of degradation we’ve witnessed up till now, Anna’s whorehouse seems like a spiritual retreat. Polly at last finds a family (watch for a great cameo by Robert Forster).
Sayles once said when he wrote “The Lady In Red” he imagined it as a fast talking Raoul Walsh/James Cagney type gangster picture. Only the director shot it more like a Louis Malle film. That’s a reference to Malle’s thirties-set brothel drama “Pretty Baby” with Brooke Shields. And the whole brothel section does seem a bit like “Pretty Baby Part 2.” Which considering the resources at Teague’s disposal is pretty impressive, baby.
As I’ve already hinted at an epic novel worth of events happens in the course of the story to Polly. Ultimately leading to Polly spearheading a bank robbery against the mob backed bank controlled by the films big villain Frognose, Chicago’s most sadistic mobster (played like a snarling Doberman by a terrifying Christopher Lloyd). John Dillinger (this time played by TV superstar diminutive tough guy Robert Conrad) doesn’t enter the story until about midway (the very good Conrad, along with Martin Sheen, is the only actor to play both Dillinger & Pretty Boy Floyd). While John Sayles’ material deserved both a bigger canvas and a bigger production, Polly got the interpreter she deserved in Pamela Sue Martin. “The Lady In Red” is a low budget classic of its era, and in a large part that’s due to Martin’s dynamic lead performance. With all Polly goes through she’s never less then human. Even when the life of a thirties brothel prostitute turns her from a naive young girl to a big city tough cookie, her heart never hardens. She takes a Leo Gorcey-Dead End Kid-type street kid off the street and gets him a job at Anna’s (played very well by Coppola regular Glenn Withrow).
She looks after her Jewish communist cellmate from prison even after she leaves jail. And during her time at the horrible sewing factory, like a sweat shop Spartacus she leads the other women in a revolt against the bullying foreman, Dick Miller. “Oh, you’re a real big man, bullying a bunch of hungry women,” she tells him in front of the eyes of the other hungry women. And when she finally finds love in the arms of Dillinger, it’s like her heart is granted, if not freedom, at least parole. And so is the heart of the audience as well. It’s one of the things so successful about the movie. We feel every single emotion Polly feels. We go on this epic journey with Polly. That’s why when the film reaches her hard-fought final freeze frame we’re all exhausted. The game maybe rigged against her throughout the whole movie. But Polly always plays to win anyway. And in her own way, in that final freeze frame, she does. She’s paid the cost to be the boss.
Both the cops and the mob will be on her trail. And tomorrow is just another hard day.
But she’s got the loot, she’s got the nerve, and she’s still alive.
The game continues…and she’s still in it to win it.