Movies From the Black Lagoon: The Lady in Red

Movies From the Black Lagoon
The Lady in Red - 1979, Rated R
By Tom Doty

An overprotected farm girl comes of age in Chicago circa the 1930's in this action/drama from Roger Corman's New World Pictures.
You know that your action movie has a heart when it begins with a farm girl belting out "42nd Street" and tap dancing like mad while feeding the chickens. We learn that our heroine, Polly, is feeling isolated now that her mother has passed away and her bible toting day has slipped into an alcohol laced haze. Her life gets a jumpstart when a crew robbing the town bank briefly kidnaps her. Soon she is off to the big city, in this case Chicago.
The windy city turns out to be a cruel mistress. Her first job finds her sweating away in a garment factory where an officious manager preys on the female staff. While on the job she is befriended by a labor organizer named Anna. The pair become roommates, and later cellmates when they incite the workers to riot.
In jail they learn that they can escape a cruel matron, and get health care for the now ailing Anna, if Polly participates in a questionable furlough program by working in a cathouse. She takes the job but finds that she will have to fork over most of her earnings to the mobsters and cops who share protection duties on the brothel.
It isn't hard to see where this is going but it is fun getting there as Polly soon learns how to hit a fastball and rob a bank form her new boyfriend, John Dillinger. There romance gives Polly a chance to be accepted on her own terms but it all goes south after a date to the famed 'Biograph Theater." Too bad the Biograph's fame was due to Dillinger being gunned down in front of it.
By now the film is almost over but there is still time for a heist sequence and subsequent shootout that will take all of Polly's friends but leave her free to pursue the American dream in California without the handicap of being broke.
What should have been a formula rehash of 'Bonnie and Clyde" becomes an opportunity to examine American mores in an exploitation setting thanks to a sharp screenplay form John Sayles. The filmmaker who gave us "Eight Men Out" often bankrolled his independent films by penning genre flicks for Roger Corman and this script is a beaut. It touches on a number of social issues but never forgets to entertain at the same time. Even though the film takes a jab at the prison system for turning out criminals that doesn't mean the film can't stop for a shower sequence followed by a hair salon massacre that sees a gaggle of inmates turn on their abusive matron and electrocute her with a curling iron.
The film gets a huge boost from the adorable Pamela Sue Martin as Polly. She would go on to gain fame as the star of the 'Nancy Drew Mysteries" but this bold actress is at her best here as a young woman who learns the cruel ways of the world and survives to punch back. Robert Conrad and Robert Foster score good roles as the only two men who share more than their affections with Polly but the best role goes to Robert Hogan as a smarmy reporter. Keep an eye out for future "Taxi" star Christopher Lloyd as a brutal gangster galled "Frog nose." His bathroom death scene echoes "The Godfather", but that's just one of several films that get referenced here. A film lover will get a big kick out of this one; history lovers should enjoy it too.
Best Line: "Look man, I've been slinging hash all day and I don't have the energy for a palm tickler with big ideas."

Tom Doty occasionally emerges from the Lagoon to check his e-mail and to read to children every Wednesday at 10:30am at Borders in Hagerstown. If you'd like to get a message to him, write to: dotyfox@myactv.net.