“I have two arms. Two legs. And I know all the words to ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas’.”
The Lady In Red, 1979 (Pamela Sue Martin), New World Pictures
You have a simple farm girl in Polly Franklin (Pamela Sue Martin) singing show-tunes while she’s getting the eggs for transit into town. She stops and does a soft-shoe for the assembled horses and chickens. Her no-nonsense father rants and raves about hell and damnation. While in town, she witnesses a bank robbery. The robbers (one of them, Mary Woronov, playing a moll) take Polly for a short ride as they elude the cops. After a talk with a newspaper man, she discovers she was in the clutches of the Dillinger gang. Some time later, she heads to Chicago and sets about working in textile sweatshops for sleazy Dick Miller (a staple in Roger Corman movies). Miller exploits the workers (this must’ve been before Unions) and Polly leads a revolt. She gets a job as a dance hall girl – 10 cents a dance!
Working her way up in the food chain, she becomes a decent prostitute pulling in good money. The Johns really go for that innocent naive thing, and Sue Martin plays every scene with the youthful zeal that made her extremely popular as Nancy Drew in The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, which ran on the ABC Television Network from 1977 to 1979. It was rumored she left the show because of this movie, but the dates don’t quite line up, and most official explanations cite “creative differences” as the main reason for her departure. She hits the sheets with a mysterious hit man named Turk (Robert Forster), which gives her the idea to spend more time sidling up to the Mob. Polly’s an angler, and much sharper than most women who resort to worse measures to get through the days in the incredibly corrupt cesspool of Chicago in the Prohibition era.
She spends some time in jail where she has to deal with monstrous matron Nancy (Porky’s “Tallywhacker Inspector”) Parsons. The movie is a kaleidoscope of genre and exploitation films; gangland, prostitution, women-in-prison movies. The violence is truly graphic and bloody. In fact, this is one of the more violent movies I’ve seen, and it seems to have made that way on purpose. The Lady in Red is not a movie you’re going to find in a multiplex. More likely, the drive-in circuit. It’s more a tent-pole show, moving from town to town and making money. Sandwiched between all of Polly’s hi-jinks is her love affair with famed gangster John H. Dillinger (Robert Conrad). They make a cute couple, but Conrad isn’t in the movie enough, nor do I think he was intended to be. This is the girl’s story, not his. He’s a mystery to Polly. He never tells her who he is, but everybody else seems to figure it out. The movie is based on a footnote in crime history. Imagine seeing the bloody aftermath of the notorious shootout. Dillinger, riddled with bullet and a woman in a red dress at his side as he dies. This was John Sayles’ central premise when he was mandated by Corman to write the movie. Who is this girl?
Louise Fletcher’s duplicitious Anna Sage (working through a lot of early childhood pain, I gather) drops the dime to Hoover’s FBI task force on Polly’s relationship with Dillinger. The Feds move in at the Biograph Theater where Dillinger and the little lady take in a movie. Sage “makes” Dillinger and the Feds plug him full of lead and leave him a bloody mess in front of the marquee. This isn’t how the story actually unfolds from what I’ve read. In reality, shots were fired upon his exit, and Dillinger gave chase through a side alley and was shot in the back, severing his spinal cord. In the movie, a crowd of amused spectators dabs napkins and handkerchiefs into his blood. The Press has it all wrong, concocting a narrative that she was the woman who betrayed him. She orchestrates a little payback, and in the process takes up Dillinger’s bank-robbing work. Director Lewis Teague shot the movie in 20 days with a budget of under a half a million dollars. He would go on to direct Alligator, Cujo, Cat’s Eye, and the Romancing the Stone sequel, The Jewel of the Nile.
Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.