Marked Woman (1937) **
Inspired in part by the real life Lucky Luciano trial, Marked Woman is an interesting attempt to play the Warners gangster formula from a female perspective (the intention presumably more to siphon some of the women’s picture market than to strike any kind of blow for equal representation).
A vehicle for Bette Davis (back at Warners after her much publicised walkout in protest at the poor quality of parts she had been offered, and here given a role that mirrors something of that real-life feistiness and determination), the film resembles a subplot from a standard Warner movie given separate and extended life.
Davis plays a clip joint hostess, the kind of character usually seen on the periphery of the Warners universe, perhaps given one good scene but nothing more, who refuses to testify at the murder trial of her gangster boss, thus ensuring his acquittal. But when her own sister is killed, she changes her mind, and in a still shocking development is savagely beaten and disfigured.
The switch of focus gives the film a refreshingly different feel, and provides several good roles for the studio’s female contract artists (including Mayo Methot, soon to embark on her tempestuous marriage to Bogart). The prioritising of Davis’s character has an interesting knock-on effect on the secondary casting. In the normal scheme of things, the crusading DA would have been lead material for Cagney or Robinson, but the role’s secondary status means that it is taken by Bogart, who thus gets to play his first upstanding character in a Warners crime movie. This then means that a star further still down the studio’s roster of importance gets the traditional Bogart role of the vicious gangster; here it's Eduardo Cianelli. With an all-star bill this would have been quite something, as it is, Cianelli is rather colourless and Bogart can do little with his underwritten role, so Davis is left to carry the whole show.
Typically, Davis insisted on consulting doctors to ensure her injuries looked authentic in the final scenes. Producer Hal Wallis was shocked by the result, complaining in a memo to Jack Warner that Bette “with bandages on and her eyes made up is absolutely horrible… let’s stop trying to make her too horrible-looking.” But Bette had her way, as usual, and for most audiences her shocking appearance in the hospital is the most memorable thing in the picture.