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Marked Woman

When older trailers advertised that something was "ripped from the headlines," they meant it. Marked Woman (1937) is a redressed and sanitized version of the "Lucky" Luciano story, a gangster who had been sent to jail by Thomas E. Dewey through the testimony of Lucky's prostitutes. Here Lucky is made into Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli), and he's recently muscled in on some gin joints. Once in his latest club, he tells Mary (Davis) and her gaggle of coworkers that their new marching order is to hustle the clientele even harder. They do so, but when a naïve man lays a bad check at the club, he's advised by Mary to leave town ASAP. Instead, the chump gets caught and is killed by Vanning's men. Mary then gets flagged as a witness by Dewey stand-in David Graham (Humphrey Bogart, on his way up to leading roles), and she agrees to help, only to have her reputation as a professional party girl — which is as close as the film gets to suggest she or her friends are hookers — thrown in her face. Vanning gets off and has his eye on revenge, which leads to Mary taking a beating and her innocent sister Betty (Jane Bryan) accidentally getting killed. In the '30s, actors were as likely to have thematic consistency as their directors, and it's safe to say that Bette Davis's career had more of a through-line than Marked Woman's director Lloyd Bacon. Davis, a flittery icon who could brilliantly offer strength and fragility in the same moment, spent much of career playing characters marked by their hubris. This may have been an intentional leitmotif inserted by Warner Brothers head honcho Jack L. Warner, since Davis was known to be stubborn and often complained about the lousy scripts she received. In Marked Woman, she plays another character who must find her inner strength after an initial false bravado, here with the help of her fellow hostesses-in-arms. There's a strange sense that this should be an ensemble piece — the girls band together to take down Vanning with help of D.A. Graham, but the other girls offer little beyond emotional support and the occasional one-liner, except when one girl (the most vacant of the lot) offers testimony on Betty's demise. Bacon stages everything with a perfunctory hand, and while the film is handsomely shot by studio regular George Barnes, it's a little disappointing that legend-in-waiting Bogart has little to offer other than righteous indignation. Nonetheless, Marked Woman belongs to Davis, and she makes it work. Warner's DVD release, part of "The Bette Davis Collection: Vol. 2," presents the film in its original academy aspect ratio (1.33:1) with DD 1.0 audio. Extras include the featurette "Marked Woman: Ripped from the Headlines" (13 min.), the cartoons "Porky's Hero Agency" and "She was an Acrobat's Daughter," and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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