Marked Woman is a good, tough, atmospheric film wrought from the Charles “Lucky” Luciano case prosecuted by Thomas E. Dewey, whom Governor Herbert Lehman had appointed special prosecutor in New York City in 1935. The trial of the mobster that ended in his conviction for tax evasion took place in 1936. The Michigan-born Republican was elected district attorney on his own in 1937. Dewey served as New York’s governor from 1943 to 1955, during which time he ran twice for the presidency, the second time—it was the 1948 election—being famous for his being the shoo-in who nonetheless lost to the incumbent, Harry S. Truman. Dewey holds another distinction: he was the first U.S. presidential candidate to have been born in the twentieth century. For all Dewey’s political successes and aspirations the Luciano prosecution had been the launching pad. (In many ways, former prosecutor and New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani is one of Dewey’s political descendants.) This shows, according to journalist Mary M. Stolberg, “the degree to which crime and those who battled it had taken the center stage in the national consciousness.”
But Marked Woman, which was directed by Lloyd Bacon and (uncredited) Michael Curtiz, is a helluva lot more famous for its association with another trial. Between Oscars, its star, Bette Davis, ran out on her contract to Warner Bros. after they continued to offer her dull parts. In England, she had hoped to start afresh. However, the studio got an injunction barring her from working for anyone else. Davis sued Warner Bros. in an English court. She lost—the battle at least. Shaken by adverse publicity and the prospect of further alienating their most talented female star, the studio ceded to Davis’s demands for better scripts, pay and directors, resulting in a long string of hits that brought her unprecedented popularity with both critics and the public. Marked Woman is the first film that Davis made upon what turned out to be her triumphal return to the United States. For her electric, fierce, moving portrayal of prostitute Mary Dwight (Strauber)—sanitized into a clip-joint hostess, to meet the Hollywood production code,—who locks horns with Luciano, her boss, Davis won the best actress prize at Venice. It was the next-to-last year that U.S. entries were permitted at the international festival until after the war.
The script was by Robert Rossen and Abem Finkel, the same year that Rossen, along with Aben Kandel, wrote one of the finest screenplays of the 1930s, from which Mervyn LeRoy made his most complex and powerful film, They Won’t Forget. (Seton I. Miller contributed additional dialogue to Marked Woman; Rossen later directed such films as Body and Soul, 1947, The Hustler, 1961, Lilith, 1964, and All the King’s Men, 1949, which won the best-picture Oscar.) Names of the actual persons were changed. Dewey became David Graham; Luciano, Johnny Vanning. From the latter rechristening, one could hardly guess that the actual Luciano was Sicilian-born. Helpfully, the actor playing the part brought an authentic Italian (though not Sicilian) accent to it; Eduardo Ciannelli, nearly a decade older than Luciano, is brilliant—at once elegant and cheap, reassuring yet volatile, and vicious. If Davis hadn’t given such a trenchant performance, Ciannelli would have stolen the film. On the other hand, Humphrey Bogart is out of his element on the right side of the law playing Graham/Dewey. The result is a thin, weak performance—this, the same year as his remarkable one, as a factory worker who is conned into joining a hooded xenophobic, violent fraternity, in Archie Mayo’s Black Legion. What good movies Warner Bros. made this year!—and that also includes The Life of Emile Zola, which took the best-picture Oscar.
Regrettably, Hollywood movies then were as insistently plotted as they are today. “The story” is the driving engine. Mary and four other women, all belonging to Vanning’s stable of night-club “hostesses,” share an apartment. The film shows them both at home and at work so that the implication arises that either place is an extension of the other; wherever they are, they are Vanning’s girls, his property. When a moron gambles away and loses at Club Intime without, Mary learns, the means to pay, she counsels him to leave town before Vanning learns that his check is no good. It is already too late; the establishment has had the patron followed because he did not pay in cash. Graham interrogates Mary after finding her name and phone number on the inside of a match book cover on the patron’s corpse. As directed by Vanning’s people, Mary sets Graham up, pretending to help him nail Vanning but leaving him with egg on his face in court. This trial, though, discloses to Betty, Mary’s visiting younger sister, what in fact Mary does for a living, what is putting her through college. (Mary had told Betty that she was a model.) Betty drops out, attends a Vanning party and ends up being murdered by Vanning himself for failing to provide sex on demand to one of his associates. Mary now opposes Vanning outright, drawing her pals into a united legal front against him.
The film opens with a flash of glitz. Following the usual disclaimer that all the characters and events we will be shown are fictitious (which few at the time would have taken seriously), there is a shot of a Manhattan street at night with marquees and fronts lit up, including that of a theater showing the 1935 Warner Bros. film Black Fury—one of the studio’s social problem pictures, starring (as was so often the case) Paul Muni, that not only sets the time and locale but also lets the viewer know what kind of a film Marked Woman is going to be. A theme of the film is one of social commitment: People need to summon the necessary courage to testify against criminals such as Johnny Vanning. This is what the five “hostesses” eventually do, and in his closing statement to the jury Graham makes a point of acknowledging their bravery and its social benefit and contrasting their civic responsibility to the failure of others to come forward. The five women, of course, are of the sort that mainstream society generally dismisses as lowlifes who are morally inferior to themselves, so this rhetorical use of them as a social standard is both sly and refreshing—and, too, chiding and chastising of the smug and self-righteous. Graham’s summation does not stick out like a sore thumb; Marked Woman may be a “message movie,” but it is not an overly preachy one. Indeed, that is why the reference at the outset to Black Fury is helpful in alerting the audience to the sort of issue-oriented material that might otherwise pass notice. Marked Woman is, after all, an entertaining melodrama highlighted by a superlative performance from the star who had won the best actress Oscar only one year earlier. Few will have come to the theater to be taught a lesson—a lesson that’s admirably embedded but which radiates, here subtly, there sharply, throughout.
On the other hand, the recessive, embedded nature of the film’s “lesson” is entirely appropriate on yet another score. The essential character of Marked Woman is its rich appreciation of the humanity of the five women. Early on, when Vanning moves to discharge Estelle (Mayo Methot, whom Bogart married the following year) for being too old, Mary steps in and takes her part, challenging Vanning to give her a chance to show how well Estelle can “clip” the club’s customers, making money for him. The women have their quarrels, but they come together, and the final shot of all five of them, banded together, disappearing into the fog-enshrouded night following the guilty verdict is wonderfully moving—at once, an image of their solidarity and of the anonymity of their contribution in helping to remove Vanning from society. If, instead, the film had emphasized the moral lesson, making the women’s humanity recessive, this would have shifted the film’s moral and sociopolitical ground from Left to Right, for prosecutorial imperatives (such as endangering one’s existence by proffering legal testimony against criminals), on their own, are the opposite of progressive. Marked Woman strikes a good balance, bringing to the fore the humane accents that belong there, and keeping behind these a message that, absent this balance, would be cold-hearted and inhuman. Ultimately Marked Woman is less concerned with stiffening our socially responsible spines than with enlarging and deepening our humanity. The resultant film is odd; while seeming almost slight in the viewing, certainly not momentous, afterwards it haunts and haunts, and keeps breaking one’s heart. Marked Woman succeeds in eluding the category of “Bette Davis tearjerker,” as indeed all her best films do, with the exception, perhaps, of Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939).
The same year as Marked Woman, released six months later, Stage Door, directed by Gregory LaCava, likewise mined the theme of female solidarity, in that instance, amongst aspiring actresses in a theatrical boarding house. Both films are valuable in terms of their untutored feminism. As sterling as Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden and especially Constance Collier are in Stage Door, though, there is no performance in the film to match the interest and vibrance of Davis’s Mary Dwight. Mary is ultimately beaten up and scarred with a knife by Vanning’s thugs, thus explaining the film’s title but also demonstrating how precarious is her livelihood—the one means available to her to make the kind of money that could enable her to underwrite her sister’s education. Mary’s marked face will make it impossible for her to continue doing any of the things that might allow her to make a substantial wage. It was hard enough for a guy to prevail reasonably during the Depression. A gal largely depended on her looks. Interestingly, Mary is promised reconstructive surgery; but once she has given her testimony in court and Vanning has been convicted, this promise seems to evaporate into the heavy mists awaiting the five witnesses outside the court building. This could be a goof, something the writers and filmmakers forgot; on the other hand, it might be another bull’s-eye in terms of the richness of the film’s material.
At Davis’s insistence and own arrangement (with an assist from her private doctor), Mary’s face really looks as if it has been brutalized—an unusual occurrence in Hollywood films at the time. By metaphoric extension, Mary thus represents the ordinary American folk who were all in one way or another “marked” by the Great Depression.
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