“The Lady In Red, 1979”

“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.

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Vintage Cable Box: “Baby It’s You, 1983”

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“We’re not in high school anymore.”

Baby It’s You originally premiered on The Movie Channel as part of a John Sayles retrospective that included some of his work with Corman: Alligator and The Lady In Red, as well as The Return of the Secaucus Seven and The Brother From Another Planet, his unusual and clever take on science fiction and race relations starring Joe Morton.

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Baby It’s You, 1983 (Rosanna Arquette), Paramount Pictures

As soon as they bump into each other at school, we know they’re going to be inextricably drawn to each other. Sheik (Vincent Spano) appears overdressed for high school. He wears a suit and tie. He has dark skin and slicked-back hair. Jill (Rosanna Arquette) is a nice Jewish girl, destined to meet and marry a nice Jewish boy. She can’t help but be drawn to Sheik. She studies acting and spends most of her time being bored out of her skull, and attempting to fit in with her friends. It’s 1966, but everytime we see Sheik, Bruce Springsteen comes on to the soundtrack. He wastes no time asking her out, but she rebuffs him. Like any good anti-hero, rebel-type, Sheik gets under her skin (no pun intended there), and she can’t stop thinking about him.

Sheik is a monkey-wrench in Jill’s plan for her future. She daydreams, sees her name up in lights on a marquee. She wants to make it big in the city. Sheik wants to be a singer in the tradition of Frank Sinatra. Underneath his sauve, almost-manufactured, ethnic image, he is an angry young man and extremely passionate. Arquette’s Jill puts on a brave face, full of bravado, but she is shy and frightened, especially when in Sheik’s presence. They both want to entertain. They have that much in common. He takes her out on a date, and he ignores her to hang with his guy-friends, which irritates her, or maybe I read irritation in Jill’s face.

Sheik is expelled from school – it seems all he does is wander the corridors. He turns to crime while Jill’s burgeoning acting career takes off. She goes to college, while he lipsyncs Sinatra tunes in dive bars. In the penultimate scene, Jill visits him and they make love. I’d been exposed to sex scenes before, but nothing plays quite so real for me as this scene between Arquette and Spano, no doubt due to their chemistry and mutual affection. It’s uncomfortable to watch at times. You almost feel like a voyeur watching them. It’s also unbelievably erotic though it is understated. Even for all their fighting, he worships her.

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John Sayles adapted and directed an autobiographical story written by Amy Robinson, which she and Griffin Dunne produced for their Double Play Productions. Robinson had starred in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets in 1971 as Harvey Keitel’s epileptic girlfriend. She and Dunne produced After Hours in 1985 (also starring Dunne) for Scorsese. They would go on to produce Running On Empty and White Palace. John Sayles started his career writing low budget scripts for Roger Corman like Alligator, The Lady In Red, and Piranha. Baby It’s You was his first “studio” movie in that it was financed from outside sources and released by Paramount Pictures.

Sayles’ elusive style (or lack of) focuses on eccentric stories with unusual characters, and while Baby It’s You walks familiar paths (the rebel, the good girl), he imbues the story with an unusual energy that bridges generations. This story can be told in any time with any group of characters. Sayles would go on to direct four unqualified masterpieces, Eight Men Out, Matewan, The Secret of Roan Inish, and Lone Star. It’s frustrating to see such a brilliant filmmaker make so many films and not have astounding box-office success.

Rosanna Arquette had notably appeared in The Executioner’s Song and The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, but it was this movie that launched her career. She would later appear in Desperately Seeking Susan, After Hours, and Pulp Fiction, to name a few. Vincent Spano appeared in Rumble Fish that same year, and later, Alive.

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.