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The Lady in Red

The Gangster Mamas (and Other Lady Outlaws) of Big Bad Corman – DVDs of the Week

Big Bad Mama / Big Bad Mama II Double Feature (Shout! Factory)
Crazy Mama / The Lady In Red Double Feature
(Shout! Factory)

One of the less recognized genres that director/producer/indie-exploitation movie mogul Roger Corman adopted as a minor specialty was the depression-era gangster movie. As a director he turned out Machine Gun Kelly (1958), The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) and (most importantly for the purposes of this piece) Bloody Mama (1970), his perversely Oedipal take on the Ma Barker story with Shelley Winters as the machine gun mama leading her sons through a bank-robbing spree and keeping them a little too close for comfort on their days off.

Angie Dickinson in the driver's seat of "Big Bad Mama"

Jump ahead a few years and Corman, now retired from directing to run his own independent studio, turns back to the period gangster thriller with a femme-centric twist (which proved so effective in Boxcar Bertha, the 1972 feature he produced for AIP and with an up-and-coming young filmmaker at the helm taking first shot at directing a real Hollywood film: Martin Scorsese). Bloody Mama and Boxcar Bertha are the two godmothers of the four films featured in a pair of double features from Shout! Factory, including three that carried on the legacy of Corman’s gangster Mamas: all previously available but newly remastered for posterity presented at good prices.

Angie Dickinson takes the driver’s seat in the getaway car of Big Bad Mama (1974) and powers the low-rent Bonnie and Clyde as the feisty Wilma McClatchie, a sexy and strong-willed depression-era widow with two teenage daughters blossoming into sexual creatures. Angry, outspoken and determined to take back her share (and a little more) from the fat cats and corrupt authority figures that took everything from her, she puts a stop to her daughter’s wedding with a rabble-rousing speech about social injustice and then hits the road with a fun-loving bootlegger on the run from the Feds (one of them played by Corman familiar Dick Miller). It’s the just beginning of her outlaw education on the road to bigger and better crimes, from small-time robberies and race track heist to high society capers, with two new partners: rough and ready bank robber Fred Diller (Tom Skerritt) who literally has his bank robbery hijacked by Wilma and smirking con man William Baxter (William Shatner) who seduces Wilma right out of Fred’s arms. Her girls, Billy Jean (Susan Sennett) and Polly (Robbie Lee), are quick to fill the void in Fred’s bed. He’s nothing if not adaptable.

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“And then I just go ahead and write that dialogue” – John Sayles [Part 1]

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Introduction by Richard T. Jameson

When it comes to new hope for the American cinema, filmcrit types are always in the market. New hope in 1980 took the form of a low-budget festival film with the misunderstandable title Return of the Secaucus 7. It wasn’t a documentary, wasn’t a tribute to sullen or snarling radicals, wasn’t even a where-were-you-in-’72 American Graffitistyle slice of overpacked nostalgia. What it was was this genial, witty, low-key comedy, with just the right touch of rue, about a group of friends getting together for an informal reunion one summer weekend, and trying to get used to the idea of turning 30—and just a wee bit comfortably bourgeois. The screenplay was a beauty, ostensibly laidback and wide-open, yet carefully detailed without letting the pointedness show; the characters expertly drawn, no fuss, and so cleanly individualized (among other things, everyone’s dialogue has a logic and texture all its own) that for the audience and for one another they step right out of any assigned boxes, free to explore a wide range of possibilities. The result was a droll ensemble portrait shot through with the cozy vitality the Sixties used to call natural, without any of the boring unintelligence that so often went along with it.

The Return of the Secaucus 7
“The Return of the Secaucus 7” (that’s John Sayles second from left, hiding behind his cast)

The film marked the directorial debut of John Sayles, himself age 30 and one of the most solidly talented writers of contemporary American fiction. About the time Secaucus 7 went into national release, Sayles accepted an invitation to meet with a scriptwriting class at the University of Washington and share some of his experiences. Virtually all the Hollywood personnel who graciously and generously gave of their time to support this course delivered themselves of frank and cogent remarks about the realities of the film biz at the dawn of the Eighties; but even in this company Sayles was conspicuous for the comprehensiveness and lucidity of his commentary. He talked for better than two hours, first supplying a general commentary on his background in film and the circumstances of Secaucus 7‘s making, then opening the floor for questions. Having never heard so much good sense about films and filmmaking collected in one place before, movietone news requested permission to share it with a larger public; the unassuming writer-director seemed surprised that anyone would think so highly of his off-the-cuff remarks, but he agreed. “We’ll send you a transcript so you can check it out.” He thought about that a moment, then said, “No. If I said it, I’ll stand by it. Just go ahead.” And that, with very little editing and rearranging, is what we did.

I’d always been interested in doing screenwriting, realized that there weren’t too many ways into it. I didn’t want to go out to Los Angeles and start knocking on people’s doors trying to get an agent, so I went a route that isn’t much help to most people, which is that I wrote two novels and got them published. I got a literary agent out of that, and his agency had a deal with a film agency on the West Coat, so they were automatically representing my novels as screen properties. I wrote a query letter to them saying, “I also write screenplays”—which I hadn’t done at that time—”do you want to see one?” They said, “Sure, send one,” so I wrote one and sent it off to them, and they said, “Sure, we’ll represent you.” So I moved out to the West Coast.

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