Shout! Factory // 1975 // 81 Minutes // Rated PG
The Lady In Red
Shout! Factory // 1979 // 93 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // December 7th, 2010
She's made of bullets, sin, and bathtub gin.
Two Roger Corman drive-in classics on one Shout! Factory disc.
It's California, 1958, and things are pretty rough for the Stokes women. Melba (Cloris Leachman, The Last Picture Show) has just lost her beauty parlor, which she and her momma, Sheba (Ann Sothern, The Whales of August) have been running and barely making ends meet. Teen daughter Cheryl (Linda Purl, Matlock), meanwhile, has just found out she's pregnant, the presumed father a goofy surfer, Shawn (Donny Most, Happy Days).
With no other real options, the Stokes ladies, with Shawn in tow, embark on a life of crime. Their first stop is a casino, where they meet Jim Bob (Stuart Whitman, Ruby), who takes a shine to Melba; doofus greaser Snake (George Englund, Leachman's son), who takes a shine to Cheryl; and Bertha (Merie Earle, Fatso), an old lady who's also down on her luck. Now a ragtag, ersatz gang led by Crazy Mama Melba, they set off on a wild spree of small-time hold-ups and big-time schemes. The ultimate goal: to reclaim the farm in Arkansas that the bank repossessed in 1932.
Next, we trip back to the Roaring '30s. OK, the '30s weren't really the "roaring" decade, but try telling that to Polly Franklin (Pamele Sue Martin, Dynasty), a hardscrabble hottie who hotfoots it to Chicago after her preacher-man daddy smacks her one time too many. Once in the city of Guns, Sin, and Bathtub Gin, Polly tries to make it as a dancer, but the best she can do is the "Ten Cents Per" variety. She winds up in and out of jail, finally landing at a house of the unholy run by canny Romanian madam Anna Sage (Louise Fletcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). Since God doesn't always look out for the working girl, Polly takes it on herself to make sure her fellow goodtime gals are treated right -- with mixed results.
When she meets a nice guy named "Jimmy" (Robert Conrad, The Wild, Wild West), it looks like Polly's going to get the chance to leave her squalid life and settle down. But one fateful night at the movies, Polly learns that her unassuming swain is actually notorious gangster John Dillinger -- and thanks to a crimson frock someone suggested she wear, she's now The Lady in Red, accused of setting him up for a government hit, not something that goes down well in the seedy underbelly she calls home.
While cohesion was never a hallmark of Corman's films -- or most drive-in movies -- Crazy Mama proceeds with a randomness that's almost distracting. Scenes don't flow together, and the film feels somehow disjointed. Despite oversized performances from Leachman, Sothern, and Earle, the characters don't connect. Information is tossed out haphazardly -- we're halfway through the film when we discover that Jim Bob is a sheriff, something you'd think we'd have found out right away. The attempt to make this a lower-rung Bonnie and Clyde knock-off falls flat, and when things take a serious turn and characters start going down, it really doesn't matter. Maybe the fact that Crazy Mama stars Leachman, who was fresh off her Oscar win in The Last Picture Show, and was directed by future Oscar winner Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) raised my expectations a bit too high.
All that said, it's still a fun film. Demme's homage to the '50s comes complete with the music, down-market fashions, atmosphere, ambience, and silly phrases ("Are you cruising for a bruising?") that hallmarked the era. The cast is game and appealing, the many "classic car" chase sequences entertaining, and the whole thing just a big ol' goof.
I remember seeing The Lady in Red on cable years ago. If memory serves, my primary interest in watching it was to see Nancy Drew naked. As I recall, my assessment of the whole thing was that Pamela Sue Martin looked great naked, but the film was pretty blah. Well, it looks like the years have been kind to The Lady in Red, as the film was much better than I'd remembered it, a tough little period melodrama that a couple of generations before might have come out of Warner Bros. with someone like Barbara Stanwyck in the lead. The business with Dillinger is a minor portion of the story; the rest is just the merrily embellished tale of young Polly (based on real-life Polly Hamilton) and her travails in the big city in the '30s. It's a pretty serious affair with a strong, if somewhat simplistic, streak of social commentary, but it also offers some well-done chase scenes and a solid helping of sex and violence.
It also boasts a great cast. Martin is appealingly tough as the titular lady, and Fletcher is excellent as Anna, the madam whose heart is a lot less golden than it appears. In smaller roles, we get Corman stalwarts Mary Woronov and (of course) Dick Miller; a subdued Robert Conrad as Dillinger; a creepy Christopher Lloyd as a scarred and sadistic gangster; and Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) as a charming hit man. The script, by John Sayles (Lone Star) is tight, the direction by Lewis Teague (Cujo) solid and occasionally inventive, the score by James Horner (Avatar) evocative, and the cinematography by Daniel Lacambre (Macon County Line) far better than you'd expect for a low-budget film.
Both these films have been released on DVD before. For Crazy Mama, the extras have been ported from the earlier release -- a commentary with Jonathan Demme and Roger Corman, and an interview with the two, as well as a trailer. While the first release had a miserable looking non-anamorphic transfer, Shout! Factory gives this one a newly remastered, 1.78 anamorphic image that looks very good. Audio, unfortunately, is a weak, tinny track that could have done with a boost.
The Lady in Red also gets an image upgrade and a pair of commentaries that weren't on the previous disc: one with Lewis Teague and Robert Forster, the other with John Sayles and Julie Corman. The film looks good -- better than Crazy Mama -- and the Mono audio track is just fine. The set also includes a poster gallery as well as trailers for other Corman films, and through the magic of a menu option called "The Grindhouse Experience," you can watch both films plus the trailers all the way through, uninterrupted. The menu is clever, set up like a theater, with options to navigate from the lobby to the Concession Stand (where the scene selections are), to the Projection Room (supplements), to the Theater (to watch the films, "Grindhouse" enabled or otherwise).
A couple of quibbles: I wish they'd included subtitles, particularly on Crazy Mama; and while I appreciate the opportunity to replicate an actual theatrical viewing experience, neither of these films qualifies as "Grindhouse" -- drive-in, definitely, but not grindhouse.
A fun couple of Corman films in a well-done set from Shout! Factory. I'm not gonna sic the law on these good folks anymore.
Review content copyright © 2010 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice, Crazy Mama
Perp Profile, Crazy Mama
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
Distinguishing Marks, Crazy Mama
* TV Spots
Scales of Justice, The Lady In Red
Perp Profile, The Lady In Red
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Distinguishing Marks, The Lady In Red
* Poster Gallery
* IMDb: Crazy Mama
* IMDb: The Lady in Red