Why John Sayles?

I’ll make this quick: In August, I wrote and
directed an independent film. It wasn’t my first screenplay — I’ve
been doing that since sixth grade — but it was the first time I manned
up and stepped behind the camera in a serious way. There were a lot of
reasons behind my decision, but what it boiled down to was putting up
or shutting up. I was 23, I’d been talking about how “what I really
want to do is direct” since before I dropped out of film school, I was
faced with a major change in the job that pays the bills, it was time
to do to it. If I was going to ride thefailboat, I was going to make sure I at least crashed into a police cruiser on my way out.

It turned out to be an amazing experience in which I learned a metric ton about the craft and art of filmmaking,
but guess what? I didn’t totally suck. More than that, I realized,
“Hey, yeah, I love doing this. This feels right.” So since then,
there’s been a lot of self-reflection and thinking about “well, what
kind of movies do I want to make? If I’m lucky enough to have a career,
what kind of career would I like to have?” And from all I’ve read, John
Sayles is a guy whose career I would like to have. Sayles has worked as a script doctor and screenwriter for many mainstream Hollywood films (Apollo 13 and The Mummy, among others, recently, he’s co-written Jurassic Park IV and The Spiderwick Chronicles).
He then takes that money and uses it to bankroll his own films (a
genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation helped, too). So that sounds
like a career I’d like to have — writing blockbusters by day and
telling my own stories by night.Sayles seems like a guy who has got it figured out. Maybe by looking at his movies, I can figure something out, too.

The first major film written by John Sayles was Piranha, but Netflix didn’t have that. So my first entry in the John Sayles Marathon of Madness is The Lady in Red, a B-movie from 1979. Like Joe Dante and Martin Scorsese, Sayles got his start working for Roger Corman, but even as a young writer working within some very specific parameters, Sayles makes story of The Lady in Red pretty special.

Next
to the Wild West, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that the gangland
era of the 20s and 30s is among the most mythologized times in American
history. Lady in Red takes
one of the time’s most famous stories — John Dillinger and the woman
who betrayed him — and fictionalizes it, focusing on the story of
Polly Franklin, played by Pamela Sue Martin. Through the entire movie,
Franklin can’t catch a break. She gets seduced by this asshole
reporter, who in turn gets her kicked out of the house by her
super-religious father. She winds up working at a sweatshop and later a
dance hall. She’s arrested and pimped out by a vicious warden, who
sends her to a brothel run by Louise Fletcher. Even her romance with
gangster Dillinger (a very cool and subtle Robert Conrad) is cut short
when Fletcher sells them out to the feds so she can stay in the
country.

If that sounds ridiculous, it kind of is. But between Sayles’s script, the direction of Lewis Teague, and a very strong performance by Martin, the film manages to keep it together. In a strange way, this movie reminded me of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Both movies are about tangential figures to big American legends, and like Jesse James, the film continues to tell the story of Franklin after Dillinger is shot to death outside the Biograph. I’m not going to say that Martin is comparable to Casey Affleck
— if I had to describe her performance, I’d call it “solid” — but you
do wind up feeling for Franklin, and it’s to Martin’s credit that she
plays her relatively subdued and not at all “big.” (unless it calls for
“big.”)



One of the ways the film plays with the myth of the time is by using the song “42nd Street” as a recurring musical motif. Like Pennies from Heaven, which
this would make a intriguing double feature with, the film contrasts
the optimism of the song and Polly’s dreams of escaping to California
with the harsh realism of her craptastic life. When Polly finally
manages to head towards the coast in the final scenes, she’s not at all
happy. She’s going there because, once again, she’s got nowhere else
to.

Of course, this is a Corman B-movie, so you do get a dose
of breasts, beasts (in the form of every man save Dillinger and her
adoptive father who Franklin encounters), and blood. When it comes to
the exploitative stuff, my favorite is a prison riot scene after
Franklin’s beloved Communist friend (all movies need one, after all) is
killed. Again, it’s to the credit of the writer and director that these
scenes seem to flow naturally, and are just this side of silly. I
really liked it, and if it weren’t for the fullscreen presentation, I’d
buy this on DVD.

It’s hard for me to say where this fits into Sayles’s filmography, as I’m watching it front to back and will be seeing many of these films for the first time. So this sojourn into the work of John Sayles may double back to comment on other things in this film and others as I watch more of his films.

Next: Either Return of the Secaucus 7, Sayles’s first directorial effort, or a Alligator/The Howling double feature.