This is the seventeenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 17 is called "Cream of the Grindhouse Crop Week":
Even though exploitation films overtly sensationalize the lurid subjects they depict, it doesn’t mean the movies have to be bad! After all, arthouse movies from Luis Buñuel, Jean-Luc Godard, Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski featured similar content to critical acclaim and were often played alongside exploitation films in Grindhouses, the kind of movie theaters, popular in the 70s, that mostly played exploitation films.
This week let’s watch one of the top movies from the heyday of the Grindhouse era. Even though we’ll be watching in the comfort of our own homes and at a time when easy access and exposure to all kinds of images and films is the norm, let’s imagine what it was like to make our way in the dark to one of these little theaters and see these kinds of images for the first time in the company of a bunch of other curious strangers. Watch a movie that made either the original or updated Top 20 Grindhouse Classics from The Grindhouse Cinema Database or Quentin Tarantino’s personal Top 20 Grindhouse Classics, which he shared with The Grindhouse Cinema Database while filming Inglorious Basterds. All movies featured in all three lists can be found in AlpineSuperstar’s list here.
As is so often the case with movies like this, the trivial angles are more interesting than the actual movie. So let me get the movie itself out of the way. It's good for what it is, a worthy addition to the Grindhouse Canon. That doesn't mean it's a great movie ... not even close. But it's better than the usual, and the ways in which exploitation movies can go wrong are mostly avoided. Director Lewis Teague keeps things moving, writer John Sayles doesn't trip over his own feet, Pamela Sue Martin is a reasonably appealing lead. It's based on fact without rubbing that in our faces (the "facts" being the relationship between the Lady in Red and criminal John Dillinger). You need a tolerance for staples of grindhouse like violence (lots of shootouts) and nudity (Martin's character spends time in a women's prison, and later works in a brothel). Everyone knew what they were doing, which is why Roger Corman hired them in the first place.
We've already hinted at some of the interesting trivia. Pamela Sue Martin had played Nancy Drew on television for two seasons, and wanted to change her image. So she did a Playboy pictorial, and then this movie. Later, she featured in Dynasty for several years, and even once hosted Saturday Night Live.
John Sayles began his movie career with Roger Corman. He went on to become a respected writer/director of art films, as well as a novelist. John Dillinger was played by the popular TV actor Robert Conrad. Perhaps one reason the film isn't called "Dillinger" is that the character doesn't turn up until the movie is more than halfway done. The supporting cast is filled with great actors, cult stars, and "that guys" ... Louise Fletcher had won a Best Actress Oscar only a few years earlier ... Mary Woronov (who has one scene) was a member of Warhol's Factory ... Christopher Lloyd was a bad guy named "Frognose" ... and it wouldn't be a Corman movie without the immortal Dick Miller, who this time manages a sweatshop. Finally, there's Robert Forster as a very cool hitman ... apparently the role was too small to suit Forster's agent, which for some reason is why Forster's name is not in the credits. Behind the scenes, The Lady in Red was one of the earliest films with James Horner doing the music. Horner went on to win two Oscars for Titanic. On a consumer guide level, if you want to watch a violent action movie with lots of nudity, you'll like The Lady in Red. But it's not a classic.