Saturday, June 13, 2020

Movie Reviews: Marked Woman

Marked Woman
directed by Lloyd Bacon
It is always somewhat startling and sobering to realize that people you remember as aged and decrepit were young and vibrant once. Time waits for no one. We will all eventually meet our maker. 

So I was interested to see Bette Davis, whom I remember as a gravelly voiced bug eyed chain smoking elderly woman, take the lead in this film. Although I wouldn't ever describe Davis as beautiful, she was believable playing a role that was not subtle in its sexuality. 

I didn't know it before watching the film but this movie is based on the downfall of Mafia Boss and vice lord Lucky Luciano, who had just received a thirty to fifty year sentence for extortion and prostitution about a year before this film was released. 

Much as mob film or television auteurs such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola or David Chase would do fifty years later, Bacon hired some real life mob hoodlums to give the film some verisimilitude. 
Another fun fact about this film is that one of the supporting actresses, Lola Lane, was the inspiration for the comic book character, Lois Lane. As you might expect the fast paced version of the Mid-Atlantic Accent is widely used in this film, primarily by Bette Davis but also by a few other actors and actresses.

Although some people see this as a film noir because of the presence of Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, I don't. It's just a Warner Bros. crime drama, a good one perhaps but there is no moral ambiguity. There are not really conflicted heroes or femme fatales. This film is a morality play that would be echoed in comics like Spider-Man thirty years later. Either because of enforced censorship or studio squeamishness about making heroines of prostitutes, the film alters the stated occupation of the heroine and her friends from their real life inspirations.

Instead of prostitutes, they are "nightclub hostesses". As with Breakfast at Tiffany's this euphemism doesn't really fool the viewer. These ladies are all what you might call hardbitten. They know the deal. They know what boys like. They know what men want.  

And it's strongly implied that they will give it for the right price. But most of the women deep down inside are fallen angels. 

All of them have a sort of feisty feminine energy and independence. They claim not to be afraid of much. And sometimes they're even telling the truth. 

As the film opens Mary Dwight (Bette Davis) and her friends/roommates (Lola LaneMayo Methot- later Mrs. Humprey Bogart, Isabel JewellRosalind Marquis) are on the verge of leaving their nightclub workplace. They learn that their nightclub is under new management. The notorious gangster Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli) is the new owner. He explains that the hostesses will be expected to hustle men for drinks, "play nice" with them, and steer any male customers to the club gambling games. Vanning will remodel the club. 

Everyone will make more money but in return the women will have to kickback some of that money to Vanning for bail costs, lawyer fees, and protection. 

Everyone knows that Vanning plays rough with people who give him problems. So the smart thing to do is not give him any problems. Vanning doesn't like the age of one of Mary's friends and tries to fire her before Mary steps in and defends the older woman. 

Intrigued by Mary's guts, Vanning invites her to get to know him better, but Mary wants to keep it strictly business. One of her other friends leaps at the opportunity to get to know the boss better, IF you know what I mean. 

A young earnest assistant DA David Graham (Humphrey Bogart) watches in frustration as his boss can't make any headway against the Vanning syndicate. Too many people are afraid to talk. Too many judges and cops are bought off. Too many witnesses take one way rides. Equally inspired and amused by Graham's anger, his boss puts Graham in charge of getting Vanning.

Mary's young naive sister Betty (Jane Bryan) unexpectedly visits. Mary is paying Betty's college tuition and board. Mary emphatically does not want Betty to know what Mary does for a living. 

When one of the men that Mary hustled for gambling and champagne can't pay his debt, the syndicate rubs him out. Mary tried to warn him of his danger.  

When Graham discovers Mary's name and address in the dead man's effects he takes an interest in Mary. And when Vanning discovers Betty, he takes an interest in her. Mary and her friends are caught in the middle, with no one to help.

Bette Davis played this role in an over the top melodramatic way. It worked because among things she was Bette Davis. She may be tiny but she's one tough cookie. All the dialogue is suitably earnest and snappy. When the hostesses' landlord knocks on their door and enters before they give permission one of the women snarls, "Don't you know how to knock twice?" Blissfully undeterred, the rent seeking landlord retorts, "Don't you girls know how to pay once?"

As this is an older movie sex and violence is more implied than shown but there is enough demonstrated to make the film intense enough. The unseen gives this film its impact. Ciannelli is dangerous looking and sounding. Before this film premiered Davis had lost a lawsuit against Warner Bros. for not giving her better roles. This role kicked off a string of Davis successes.
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