Pamela Sue Martin is The Lady in Red (1979), based loosely on the real story of Polly Hamilton, the woman on John Dillinger’s arm when he was gunned down in front of the Biograph Theatre in Chicago.
She’s renamed Polly Franklin for the film and Martin, at the time best known for playing the wholesome teen detective Nancy Drew on TV, sheds her good girl image to play the feisty farmer’s daughter with Hollywood dreams who hopscotched from the sweatshop to the dance hall to prison and finally to the cathouse during the depression. The innocent gets tough and smart real fast, but even she doesn’t realize that her sweet, gentlemanly boyfriend “Jimmy” (Robert Conrad) is really Dillinger in hiding. (And yes, in this version, she’s a patsy set-up to look like a stoolie by the real traitor to the code.)
Dillinger only shows up in the second act and is killed soon after, but he makes an impression in the role, the gentleman gangster who treats Polly like a lady. The unsung hero of the film, however, is Robert Forster, uncredited but indelible as a hitman who falls for fallen woman Polly.
The film was the last in a series of depression-era gangster films driven by outlaw women from producer Roger Corman. Like many Corman films, it lets the ladies be tough cookies and leaders and slips social commentary (the sweatshops, the union-busting thugs, the corrupt cops and politicians, the rampant sexism and racism) between the crime movie spectacle and sexy interludes. This is populist moviemaking, Corman style, courtesy of that old lefty, screenwriter John Sayles.
Lewis Teague’s direction doesn’t have the snap or personality of Jonathan Demme’s Crazy Mama or the mix of grit and good clean dirty fun of Steve Carver in Big Bad Mama but he makes it work just fine. And the score is an early stand-out by James Horner, who works in Busby Berkeley musical numbers (especially 42nd Street) as running commentary on the dreams of success and fortune in desperate times.
Louise Fletcher, Christopher Lloyd, and Dick Miller costar and Alan Vint plays FBI agent Melvin Purvis.
The original DVD release features two commentary tracks: one by director Lewis Teague and actor Robert Forster, the other by producer Julie Corman and screenwriter John Sayles.