When Katya Yarno (Diane Lane) lands a job as a window dresser at a department store in downtown Pittsburgh she gets the attention of Jack Price (Michael Woods), an x-ray technician who works opposite of the department store. Jack begins stalking Katya and making obscene phone calls until he finally begins breaking into her apartment. At first Katya is devastated by Jack’s unwanted and violent attention, though eventually her rage leads her to retaliate.
Lady Beware (1987) does not exist in the way that auteur director Karen Arthur intended. In order to boost distribution the producers re-cut the film behind Arthur’s back, adding many more shots of Diane Lane in the nude. However, even with these change, Karen Arthur’s unique voice manages to come through. This is particularly true early on in the film when the focus is on Jack’s anonymous micro aggressions towards Katya in public spaces.
Lady Beware is a thriller that functions as a rather transparent allegory for the many ways that patriarchal ideologies and misogynist behaviors rob women of their autonomy and their privacy. There’s a strange, dreamy, almost surreal quality to Lady Beware that recalls Karen Arthur’s masterpiece The Mafu Cage (1978). Unfortunately Arthur’s political agenda is compromised by the film’s producers, almost mirroring Jack’s victimization of Katya. The middle act of Lady Beware features the most nudity and undoes the subtle work and nuance of the film’s first act.
Karen Arthur’s film is meant to focus on and vilify misogynist attitudes, not present the viewer with a reaffirmation of misogyny via Diane Lane’s naked body as fetish object. Perhaps the most important part of Lady Beware is that it follows the dramatic beats of a grindhouse “rape/revenge” genre picture without including that kind of all out assault. The machinations of Jack’s abuse are far more abstract and methodical. As a villain, his modus operandi is to psychologically wear down Katya until her entire identity ceases to exist.
The one problem with Lady Beware that cannot be attributed exclusively to the intervention of the producers is the choice of Katya’s profession. Katya is an ambitious window dresser who creates sexually charged, post-modernist tableaus with mannequins. It’s a choice that serves narrative function far more than it holds any bearing on reality. Even if the intention is to ground Katya in a traditionally femme working environment it is still a bit too far fetched.
To give Karen Arthur the benefit of the doubt, perhaps Katya’s window dressing vocation feels more natural in the original cut of the film. That said, Lady Beware deserves a home video release that pairs both the director’s and the producer’s cuts of the film. In its current bastardized form Lady Beware is still a really affecting and interesting film that feels just as relevant now as it did more than thirty years ago. It’s a film that really shouldn’t be as hard to come by as it is today.