A low-budget, New World (i.e., Roger Corman) quickie that turned out to be a good showcase for the budding talents of screenwriter Sayles and director Teague. THE LADY IN RED came at the end of the Corman gangster cycle that saw several uneven and violent biographies of real-life hoods: Al
Capone and Bugs Moran in THE ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE (1967), Ma Barker in BLOODY MAMA (1970), John Dillinger in DILLINGER (1973), and "Scarface" Al again in CAPONE (1975). Screenwriter Sayles twisted the formula a bit and decided to show the crime community of the 1920s and 1930s through the
eyes of a young woman (Martin) who drifts into a life of crime. She is a small-town girl who, tired of boredom and abuse at home, decides to leave for Hollywood. She makes it as far as Chicago where she gets a low-paying job and falls subject to the same abuse she suffered back home. Martin rebels
against her condition and causes enough trouble to land herself in prison. There the situation gets even worse when her sadistic guards become determined to quash her independent attitude. Nearly broken, Martin is released in the custody of the infamous Anna Sage (Fletcher), who employs the girl
in her bordello. Though working as a prostitute, Martin is able to attain a certain (if seedy) status and gain a modicum of control over her own destiny. Unfortunately, Fletcher's brothel is closed down by the authorities, leaving Martin to scratch for a living once again. She meets a handsome,
smart, and dashing man, Conrad, who claims he works at the Board of Trade. He is, in fact, the notorious bank robber John Dillinger, though he keeps his identity a secret from Martin. The two begin a romance and become genuinely close to one another. Martin is in love for the first time in her
life, and she tells her friend Fletcher about Conrad. Fletcher realizes Conrad's true identity, and, needing a bargaining chip to keep from being deported back to her native Rumania, she secretly informs the FBI and arranges to set the gangster up. One hot night in July, Martin, Conrad, and
Fletcher go to the air-conditioned Biograph theater to see a movie and cool off. When the film is over and the three leave, Conrad is gunned down by the FBI. Martin is traumatized by the shocking event and is horrified to learn that her lover was Public Enemy Number 1. Though Fletcher was the real
culprit, the press pegs Martin as the "lady in red" who set up Conrad. The notoriety drives Martin into a full-fledged life of crime; she commits several robberies before finally winding her way to her original destination, Hollywood.
Though the film plays hard and loose with the facts (especially since some theorize now that Dillinger's death was a hoax and another man was killed in Dillinger's place) regarding Conrad's and Martin's characters (Polly's real name was Polly Hamilton), THE LADY IN RED succeeds on many levels.
Sayles' script is an intelligent look at a woman's struggle in 1930s society, and it conveys the proper mood for the character and the times. Teague's direction manages to capture the era on a shoestring budget, and the performances he gets from his cast are solid. Martin, who went all the way to
break her "Nancy Drew" image from television, gives a likable, tough, and intelligent characterization. Conrad is surprisingly good, bringing a strange melancholy to the character while still maintaining the charm and intelligence associated with the famous criminal. It is a quiet, reserved, very
human interpretation of the legendary bank robber that does not succumb to traditional gangster movie sterotypes. While the film at times suffers from the obligatory Corman excesses of nudity and violence, THE LADY IN RED is more than just another exploitation film; it is an interesting addition
to the gangster genre.
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- Released: 1979
- Rating: R
- Review: A low-budget, New World (i.e., Roger Corman) quickie that turned out to be a good showcase for the budding talents of screenwriter Sayles and director Teague. THE LADY IN RED came at the end of the Corman gangster cycle that saw several uneven and violent… (more)