Recently watched “Marked Woman,” an early Bette Davis/Humphrey Bogart flick in which Davis is a nightclub hostess who tries to go up against the toughest gangster in town after he kills her sister. Bogart is the crusading, by which I mean lecturing, DA. It’s actually a startlingly powerful film, largely because it takes everything about the clip-joint girls’ lives so seriously: their friendships, their families, their courage, their distinctive personalities. It’s about the compromises they made to get by or to help their families, and then it’s about the terrible moment when all of their compromises fail them and their backs are pushed against the wall.
Davis’s character could have come across like one of today’s infuriating smartmouthed YA heroines, all self-righteous backchat, but instead you really come to love her as she progresses from naive cynicism to brokenhearted heroism. All of her decisions result in her humiliation, and yet she perseveres. Bogart isn’t a villain, but he does come off as clueless and smarmy: At one point he says that they both grew up in tough situations, but the difference is that he (I forget how he phrased it) played by the rules. After everything we’ve already seen, I think the natural audience response is to think, “Well, and also the difference is that you’re a man.” In the final shot we stand completely with the hostesses, against gangsters, Good People, and even the well-meaning reformist types like Bogart’s DA. The movie’s ending is sad, lonely, much more bitter than sweet–and yet still cuter than real life.
Neither Davis nor Bogart are at their very best, but they’re always good (Davis is luminous even when she could come across as shrill), and this is a terrific script. And the clothes are noticeably fabulous, just sheer pleasure to watch; they’re by Orry-Kelly. I don’t know that I usually notice that stuff but it really leaps out at you here, and adds a luxuriant touch to a film with a low-rent heart.