Monday 3 December 2012

Movie Review: Marked Woman (1937)

One of Humphrey Bogart's earlier good-guy roles finds him as a prosecutor trying to help "nightclub hostesses" including Bette Davis escape the tyranny of their gangster boss. Marked Woman may be missing some style and complexity, but it is notable for grim realism and an openly sympathetic portrayal of prostitutes.

Mary (Davis) is one of several hostesses working at a New York nightclub when new boss Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli) takes over the establishment. Vanning is a feared crime lord and demands absolute loyalty as he introduces gambling and drives up profit. Business booms, but when a naive customer spends the evening with Mary drinking, dancing and gambling and is unable to settle his large bill, he is summarily killed. Prosecutor David Graham (Bogart) spots the opportunity to damage Vanning's business by convicting a couple of his henchmen for murder, but from the witness stand Mary helps Vanning embarrass Graham and the case falls apart.

Mary's innocent sister Betty (Jane Bryan) comes to town, and soon Betty gets herself involved with sordid characters and is embroiled with Vanning's crowd.  Things go from bad to worse for Betty, and soon Mary and the other hostesses have a choice to make: cooperate fully with Graham to help convict Vanning while placing themselves in personal danger, or continue to meekly play the role of victims under a gangster's thumb.

With real-life characters Lucky Luciano and Manhattan crime-fighting District Attorney Thomas Dewey providing inspiration for Vanning and Graham respectively, Marked Woman attains that coveted ripped-from-the-headlines feel. And despite the script (co-written by Robert Rossen) tip-toeing all around Mary's profession, describing the girls as drinking and dancing companions and avoiding any explicit mention of sexual favours, there is undeniable sympathy for the struggles of the prostitutes, caught between unsympathetic law enforcement and uncompromising gangsters, and never far from being arrested or abused.

Davis gives Mary plenty of heart and spirit, without shying away from responsibility for her life's choices. Mary is actually comfortable under Vanning's wing, and needs to be pushed hard to think of turning against him. Davis is exemplary in portraying the bleak struggle against men on both sides of the law out for their own agendas, for although Graham offers an escape road, he is not so much after saving Mary as nailing Vanning. The other girls (including Estelle, portrayed by Mayo Methot, the soon to be Mrs. Bogart) are provided with basic but strictly defined supporting roles.

Bogart is slightly monochromatic, portraying David Graham as single-minded in his pursuit of Vanning, and only demonstrating empathy in brief flashes. Graham as a character is fixated on badgering Mary to testify and has relatively few other choices to make, and Bogart's persona would later thrive once confronted with an array of complex decisions to untangle.

Director Lloyd Bacon (with the uncredited help of Michael Curtiz) maintains brisk control of the pacing, avoiding any deviation from the shortest path and delivering the package in about 90 minutes.

Marked Woman unflinchingly avoids an overtly triumphant conclusion. Mary and the other nightclub hostesses struggle to find the strength to make the brave decision, and once they take charge of their destiny, there are thankfully no guarantees of sappy happiness waiting on the other side.

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