The Bette Davis Project: Marked Woman (1937)

Marked Woman (1937)


In New York, a tenacious district attorney, David Graham (Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca), tries to convince a clip joint “hostess,” Mary (Bette Davis), to testify against her boss, notorious kingpin Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli, Gunga Din). At first, she refuses, but when her kid sister, Betty (Jane Bryan, The Old Maid), disappears under mysterious circumstances, the “hostess” decides to help the State’s District Attorney.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Fast-paced, no-holds-barred melodrama splendidly directed by Lloyd Bacon (42nd Street and Knute Rockne, All American). In typical Warner Bros. fashion, the story was taken directly from the headlines of the day. It’s based on gangster “Lucky” Luciano’s sensational 1936 trial. Although the script by Robert Rossen (All the King’s Men and The Hustler) and Abem Finkel toys with facts, there are enough nuggets of truth here to make the movie of high topical interest.

Marked Woman has also been the subject of much analysis because it is one of the few gangster films told from the perspective of female characters and that alone makes it interesting.

Most of the film’s accolades have rightly gone to Davis, who gives a terrific performance as the tough-as-nails “hostess” (aka prostitute). Granted, Davis is a bit too poised and articulate to be a common hooker, but she infuses her character with hypnotic energy. Years later, film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “as the smart, lively young clip join hostess who turns informer, Davis is the embodiment of the sensational side of the ’30s movies.” I couldn’t have said better.

Marked Woman is known in some circles as the “reconciliatory movie” that brought Davis back into the Warners fold and paved the way for her to become the studio’s number one star. She was genuinely shocked that she was given such a great part after battling the studio in court. It’s indeed a fabulous role that Davis plays to perfection. There is a particularly great moment where she is interrogated by the DA, played by Bogart. Speaking of Bogie, he is very good as an uncharacteristically super-decent guy — Bogie’s case summary is impressive.

Cinematographer George Barnes (Rebecca) gives the film a quasi-noirish feel to it. The film’s final shot, which I don’t want to spoil, is justly legendary.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Marked Woman is a key film in both gangster and women’s picture canons. The cast also includes Mayo Methot (soon-to-be Mrs. Humphrey Bogart), Henry O’Neill (Jezebel), Allen Jenkins, and Lola Lane. B&W, 97 minutes, Not Rated.

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