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The Notorious Bette

Christopher Sieving

Despite mandated equivocations, Marked Woman is a tutorial in how crafty filmmakers could subvert the spirit of the Production Code with regard to sexually explicit subject matter.

The longstanding anonymity of Warner Bros.' terrific 1937 crime melodrama Marked Woman has always been a mystery to me. You'll never hear it mentioned as one the signature Bette Davis vehicles, even if the list is confined to the first five years of her stardom (from Of Human Bondage in 1934 to Dark Victory in 1939). Of the famed Warners social problem pictures of the 1930s, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Wild Boys of the Road are better known. If you prefer to classify Marked Woman as a gangster movie, the competition gets even stiffer, with countless Cagney and Bogart pictures topping various lists. (Bogart's in Marked Woman, too, but as a district attorney, one of his few '30s roles on the "right" side of the law.)

Its DVD debut -- it can be purchased individually or as part of the seven-disc The Bette Davis Collection, Vol. 2 -- will certainly raise the picture's profile. But at a remove of seven decades, Marked Woman's chances for total rehabilitation are about as promising as a Prohibition racketeer's.

Marked Woman does appear mundane on its surface. It inhabits a familiar Warners genre, features solid but not flashy performances, and, although the pristine DVD transfer highlights director Lloyd Bacon's compositional gifts, its visual style is mostly functional. ("Cinéma brut," Charles Eckert astutely classified it in a 1973 essay.) Marked Woman achieves a sort of equilibrium not uncommon to the studio system era: it doesn't knock you over with its technique, but it does an awful lot of things extremely well. What does seem innovative about the film -- its proto-feminist empathy for oppressed women -- seems inseparable from its general professionalism.

To this end, Marked Woman merges a conventional tale of a gangster's rise and fall with a female bonding story. As with most entries in the Warners social problem genre, the plot is baldly based on a topical news story. (The studio brass commonly referred to these films as "headlines" pictures.) The event in question was the 1936 trial of New York underworld kingpin "Lucky" Luciano, charged with running the city's houses of prostitution. The prosecuting attorney, Thomas Dewey, obtained a conviction based largely on the testimony of some of the women who worked in those houses. Thanks to intense media scrutiny, Dewey used the case as a springboard to the governorship of New York and eventually the Republican nomination for president. His star witnesses, whose character Dewey had barely bothered to defend from repeated attacks by Luciano's counsel, returned to oblivion.

Marked Woman
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Cast: Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Eduardo Ciannelli, Isabel Jewell
(Warner Bros., 1937) Not rated
DVD release date: 30 May 2006 (Warner Home Video)

In deference to the Production Code's guidelines for self-censorship, Marked Woman changes the primary locale from a brothel to a nightclub (or, in the film's patois, a "clip joint") and the central characters from call girls to "hostesses." Mary Dwight (Davis) and her four roommates work in this capacity for vice lord Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli), the Luciano surrogate. Their job: to get male customers drunk so that they lose their shirts gambling in the "social room."

Despite such mandated equivocations, Marked Woman is a tutorial in how crafty filmmakers like Bacon and screenwriters Robert Rossen and Abem Finkel could subvert the spirit of the Code with regard to sexually explicit subject matter. It's obvious what the women's "true" vocations are; the almost hysterical disparagement by their male counterparts, enemies, and allies serves as a fairly strong hint. Other indications are more brazen, as when a wisecracking door-to-door peddler of women's clothing ("I positively guarantee it was stolen from the best shop in town") ogles Emmy Lou (Isabel Jewell) as she models a new dress and declares, "That's one of the most beautiful pieces of merchandise I've ever seen!"

Brash and headstrong in accordance with the Bette Davis star persona, Mary turns on the mob to avenge the murder of her younger sister Betty (sweet-faced Jane Bryan), a naïve college kid who spurned the lecherous advances of a Vanning associate. Undeterred by a savage knife attack by Vanning's goons that permanently scars her ("marking" her in more ways than one), Mary takes her case to the film's Dewey surrogate, idealistic DA David Graham (Bogart, then an up-and-coming Warners contract player). When the trial concludes in their favor, Graham basks in congratulations and speculation about his political future. The five women, in the picture's most visually arresting sequence, exit the courthouse and walk into an enveloping fog, each momentarily isolated in close-up, yet reintegrated into the group in a final wide shot.

For those uninterested in its real-world source material, its subversions of the Code, or in other bits of production trivia recounted in the DVD's perfunctory making-of featurette, Marked Woman still offers many surface pleasures. In addition to its tight, briskly-paced script and sturdy direction, the film also provides a showcase for the always dependable Warners stock company. Not quite all of the performances are up to standard -- Lola Lane as the worldly, "sensible" Gabby is notably stiff in her line readings -- but most are first-rate. The hypnotically oily Ciannelli is especially memorable in a very broadly drawn role that balances comic relief and genuine menace.

Aside from Ciannelli, the actor having the most fun here is, not surprisingly, Bette Davis. By this time she was the subject of frequent caricature for the intensity of her acting style. (Indeed, look no further than "She Was an Acrobat's Daughter," an amusing "Merrie Melodies" cartoon included on the Marked Woman DVD, that parodies Davis' performance in The Petrified Forest.) This intensity is effectively measured in her performance as Mary Dwight, emerging strategically especially at those moments when her smug self-assurance ("I know all the angles... I know how to beat this racket") is punctured and her ability to master situations is exposed as illusory.

The most affecting display of Davis' skill is also one of Bogart's finest moments. Having previously been deceived by Mary, Graham coolly dismisses her pleas for an investigation into her sister's disappearance. Mary sheds her cynicism and self-righteousness, Graham his pretense of sincerity: for the first time neither character is "acting." When news of Betty's gruesome fate arrives shortly thereafter, you see, through details like Davis' vacant stare and Bogart's clenched jaw, their muted anger hardening into iron determination.

Aside from the star turns that justified the DVD release, Marked Woman's major source of interest for contemporary audiences lies slightly beneath the surface. This source was perhaps first identified by critic Karyn Kay, who in 1972 called Marked Woman "one of the best films about women (and therefore, for women) ever to come out of Hollywood" ("Sisters of the Night," reprinted in Bill Nichols, ed. Movies and Methods [Berkeley: University of California, 1976]). Certainly, it is open to a feminist reading and appreciation as few crime melodramas have been. (It's a shame this angle is mostly neglected in the DVD's featurette, a predictably inert combination of talking heads and publicity stills.) The insistent focus on the camaraderie among women and absence of a romance between the male and female leads are rare enough within the genre. As well, Marked Woman communicates contempt, not just for the gangsters who treat women as disposable commodities, but also for the process by which Graham makes a name for himself at the expense of their reputations.

How could this have happened? How could a film that stops just short of providing an economic rationale for prostitution get released by a major corporation like Warner Bros.? The sophistication of Marked Woman's critique of gender and power relations is startling, but it's not completely anomalous in the context of the old studio system. The movie's feminist proclivities were, to a significant degree, enabled by the casting of Davis, as the prohibitions on sex and violence imposed by the Production Code dictated the amplification of the story's "social problem" elements. And the genre conventions required the audience's sympathy be directed toward the exploited, regardless of their occupations.

The phrase "genius of the system" is often applied to this era's Hollywood cinema for good reason: with all the constraints imposed upon filmmakers, a lot of very good films were made. In more than a few cases, they were made because of the constraints. This is not to say that Marked Woman was just a happy accident; rather, its example illustrates what could be accomplished as the result of the combination of enabling industrial factors and dependable talents. Like the real life heroines who took down Lucky Luciano, this picture has been forgotten for too long. I'm delighted to see it reemerge from the fog to receive at least a fraction of the recognition it deserves.

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