For some reason I had thought that Bette Davis was not much of an actress in the early days of her career, and only came into her own when she was playing somewhat older women with fading looks, such as All About Eve, which she starred in when she was 42 in 1950. I might have gotten this impression from a scene in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in which movie producers gripe about the talentless actress on the screen as they look over dailies of “Baby” Jane Hudson’s films (actually two really Bette Davis flicks from 1933). Davis reportedly told Baby Jane director Robert Aldrich that if he was looking for bad performances from her early career, almost any film from the era of her career would do.
I am so used to seeing Davis playing aging characters with a vicious streak in them, that it came as somewhat of a surprise to see her at 29, playing a pretty, good-hearted woman who Humphrey Bogart calls “kid.” Davis is great as a street-smart night club hostess who agrees to go along with things when a notorious gangster takes over “Club Intimate” where she works and turns it into a clip joint. She disagrees with the dishonest nature of the business, but she is supporting her younger sister and doesn’t want to go back to earning $12 a week at a department store counter.
Things get messy quick when Davis’ character feels sympathetic to a sucker who is taken for a small fortune one night in the club and later confesses to her during a taxi ride home that he doesn’t have a cent to his name. She urges him to get out of town and quick, but when he turns up dead with her name and address written on a matchbook in his pocket, the police come calling. Humphrey Bogart plays a young, impassioned district attorney who encourages her to testify and put her boss behind bars. When she is too scared to get involved, her wide-eyed sister gets caught up with the gangster and winds up dead. It is the finally straw that convinces the hostesses to testify.
Although The Stranger on the Third Floor is often referred to as the first film noir, Marked Woman, with its crime them, tough women and the presence of Bogart makes this a kind of proto-noir. It deserves a proper restoration and DVD release, as the copy I saw was heavily marred by jump cuts and a crackling soundtrack.