The Lady in Red (1979)

“People do things when they got the screws on ’em, doesn’t mean who they are, what they are.”

Despite being relegated to a cameo in his own movie, John Dillinger (Robert Conrad) still manages to nutshell this exploitation gangster epic in succinct terms. Life is survival, especially in 1920s Chicago when you’re on the bottom rung looking up and crime is a means to pay for the next hot meal.

The real-life ‘lady in red’ was the woman used to mark out infamous bank-robber Dillinger from the crowd when he exited a movie theatre into a hail of G-men bullets. Budding screenwriter John Sayles took the mysterious footnote in history and worked backwards, reinventing her as ingenue Polly Franklin, for a hard-boiled spin on Candide that powers through the hardships of Depression-era America with breakneck enthusiasm.

We first meet Polly (Pamela Sue Martin) collecting chicken eggs on the family farm, tap-dancing to 42nd Street (the movie’s oft-repeated theme tune) to dream of better times. On a trip into town, she meets her first ‘lady in red’: a bank robber who uses her as running board cover during a shootout and ensuing car chase, before dumping her unceremoniously into the dust. 

Being the star witness in an armed robbery brings Polly to the attention of sleazy reporter Jake Lingle, who entices her back to his room with the promise of a red dress. After being unromantically deflowered (“it hurt”), Polly is dumped again and returns home to her Bible-quoting fire-and-brimstone father and his belt. 

Having enough of small town beatings, Polly hitch-hikes to Chicago, finding work sewing in a sweatshop for lecherous Patek (Dick Miller). When her new best friend, Jewish Rose Shimkus, is hauled off by ‘industrial agents’ for Commie sympathies (after fellow worker May is hospitalised by a coathanger abortion with Patek’s baby), Polly starts a Spartacus protest on the factory line (“big man pushing load of hungry girls around”) that ends with a riot and the unemployment line.

Her next job, dancing for 10 cents in a ball room, has its own set of rules – “no Greeks, Chinks or Filipinos, no matter how much jack they got”. Looking at her meagre wages, she consents to her co-worker’s way of earning extra bread – a trip back stage for a fellowship fumble. Unfortunately, her cocotte debut, in another warning signal red dress, is with an undercover cop, the cuffs are slapped on and prison calls.

And that’s just the first 20 minutes. Phew!

This is a movie on fast forward – an epic serial packed into 90 minutes, told at high-octane pace with tongue biting every nubile cheek with blood splattering verve. 

From prison showers, fights and beatings through brothel rapes and murders, gangster assassinations and as many car chases, shoot-outs, robberies and glamorous red dresses as an exploitation budget can allow, the movie barely slows down enough to allow our not-so-innocent heroine a brief sojourn with robber-in-hiding Dillinger and the tenuous connection with history. A short-lived montage involving baseball games in fields and boating on lakes allows a glimpse of peace before normal bloody chaos and double-crossing is resumed with that ill-fated trip to the cinema.

If this stripped-down synopsis reads like a panoply of hardship, then it is. The kitchen sink is thrown at Polly in her struggle to stay afloat, the torrent of injustices as entertaining as they are brutal. Dillinger’s advice of “don’t get even, get ahead” is as aspirational and deadly as the numerous red dresses that mark dangerous turning points in Polly’s journey, soundtracked to variations of 42nd Street that serve to heighten the contrast between the fairy tale and gritty realism.

Racism is endemic; abusive epithets fly freely as bullets, another stick to beat the downtrodden with – it would be rare to find a modern movie with as many ‘kikes’ and ‘coons’ peppering the script. While a fact of life in 1920s society, the slurs are also shown to be pointedly wrong, a mark of the numerous bullies Polly encounters – black sidekick Pinetop bristles at the insults, but also smiles in his abuser’s faces, waiting his turn for violent retribution. 

Our heroes are noble in their sufferances and, boy, are they many…

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