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Cirio H. Santiago
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In the heart of little old New York, You'll find a thoroughfare. It's the part of little old New York That runs into Times Square. A crazy quilt that "Wall Street Jack" built, If you've got a little time to spare, I want to take you there. Come and meet those dancing feet, On the avenue I'm taking you to, Forty-Second Street.
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This picture makes for an interesting companion piece to Michael Mann's recent "Public Enemies"; it covers not only the same era and the same setting but, inevitably, much of the same source material. And compared to earlier black-and-white gangster movies it shares a similar distinctly modern sensibility. Indeed, dubbed a "cheerful exploitation flick", it far outdoes the more recent film in the sheer quantity of sex and nudity on display. Yet oddly enough it manages to avoid the impression of gratuitous indulgence: the lolling female flesh on view is treated as more matter-of-fact (sometimes grotesque) than erotic, and the explicit violence is never casually treated.
"The Lady in Red" turns out to succeed on a number of levels where "Public Enemies" failed: above all and most vitally in characterization and plot development. We actually care what becomes of the heroine and those she meets, however lurid the scenarios that ensue. Individuals are vividly drawn and memorable, and a vein of black humour periodically enlivens the script; it even conjures up some moments of almost lyrical happiness to provide a far more convincing love affair than Mann can achieve. Every victory over tyranny may seem to leave Polly in the long term worse off, and yet we cheer fiercely at her rebellion. There is no lack of audience identification here.
The film is also surprisingly sure-footed in its period setting. After the initial reflex jolt at seeing the familiar monochrome settings re-enacted in colour -- unthinking: of course in reality the colour would always have been there, it's just that we never saw it -- "Lady in Red" pulls off the rare trick of presenting a world that seems entirely natural to its era. The cars are not conscious museum pieces, the clothes are not being worn as costumes, the props are not just set dressing: 'period' productions so often give the air of having tried too hard over every glossy detail, or else of importing a patronising grime of deprivation. This one seems to do neither. It even gets away with the potentially heavy-handed use of period cultural references (Elliot Ness, King Kong). After a while -- the ultimate accolade -- you forget that it's in colour.
And finally, despite an escalating violence/body count, this film manages to retain death to genuinely shocking effect. There are no diminishing-return shots of gun porn here; no five-minute jerking, numbing sprays of muzzle-flash after dark. (And, although it had not until now occurred to me, no cars that roll over and burst into flames...) A lot of people wind up dead one way or another: but seen through Polly's eyes, it is neither cheap entertainment nor taken for granted.
Acting performances are admirable all round in both major and minor roles. The use of music, in particular the evocative "42nd Street" as general theme to the picture in changing moods for each context, is excellently done. This isn't the sort of picture I would have anticipated liking -- the breast count alone is about fifty times greater than anything I'd normally see -- but I found it quite unexpectedly successful... and, I'm afraid, superior on every level to "Public Enemies", with which it has on the surface so much 'modernity' in common.
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