Friday, June 9, 2023

Don't Bother to Knock: A Review



It is a curious thing that Marilyn Monroe is not thought of as a femme fatale, but she was in two great noirs: The Asphalt Jungle and Niagara (the latter being the rare color noir). Many people list Don't Bother to Knock as a noir film. I am not convinced that it is, but it does show that Marilyn Monroe was a stronger, better actress than she got credit for.

Taking place in one night at New York City's McKinley Hotel, Don't Bother to Knock starts with the troubled romance of hotel chanteuse Lyn Leslie (Anne Bancroft) and pilot Jed Towers (Richard Widmark). Jed is surprised Lyn wants to end their relationship, seeing him as uncaring and without an understanding heart. Jed certainly is something of a playboy, which is why his interest is piqued after spying a pretty young thing in the hotel room across the courtyard.

That girl is Nell Forbes (Monroe), whose uncle Eddie (Elisha Cook, Jr.) got her a babysitting job at the hotel. Eddie, the elevator operator, thinks this will be a good way for his niece to get her on her feet. Outwardly pleasant, Nell is a deeply troubled and disturbed woman, still suffering from the shock of her fiancée's death in the war. As their dance erotique continues, Jed sees that Nell is losing the ability to tell fact from fantasy. She puts her charge Bunny (Donna Corcoran) in danger, not to mention everyone else. Will Nell lose her grip of sanity and endanger both herself and others? Will Jed and Lyn manage to find each other again?

Don't Bother to Knock showcases Marilyn Monroe in one of her best performances. What is interesting is that this was before she turned to the Actors' Studio for training. Here, Monroe captures the lost, forlorn young woman, traumatized by a repressive home life and haunted memories in a heartbreaking and sympathetic performance. We see early in the film where she acts silently, trying on beautiful jewelry and clothes. She looks innocent and mischievous, and the scene starts off as slightly naughty but harmless.

However, once she hears the roar of a plane's engine, her face changes. Going to the window, there is this expression of deep sorrow, sadness and longing that Monroe conveys. This, along with slashes on her wrists, explain more than dialogue would. 

Monroe comes close to being something of the kid sister to Blanche DuBois, where she is at times deeply lost in her own world. Unlike our bonkers Southern belle though, Nell is also dangerous. She does not shrink from attempting murder or threatening children to get at what she wants. That despite her actions in the end you feel sympathy for Nell is a credit to Marilyn Monroe's untapped potential.

Widmark is more than her equal as the in-turns sleazy and caring Jed. He is drawn to this woman due to her beauty, but he also sees how dangerous she is. He comments that he doesn't understand her, saying she's silk on one side and sandpaper on the other. You should not like Jed since he was willing to take advantage of a disturbed woman. Nevertheless, Widmark manages to find the humanity in this questionable person.

Cook, Jr., who mostly played noir villains, here plays a sympathetic figure. As Nell's Uncle Eddie, Cook, Jr. showed a worried but loving person. He is not above calling a spade a spade (at one point saying that Nell "smells like a hooch dancer" after she puts on too much perfume). He does, however, show that he thinks Nell is loving but disturbed, not in full control of herself. 

Don't Bother to Knock was also an early role for Bancroft, and she did quite well as Lyn. She loves Jed but also knows he is not right for her. It is unfortunate that she is relegated mostly to singing versus acting. It also would have been nice to see Lyn and Nell interact more.

To be fair, I thought Corcoran's Bunny was not particularly pleasant. She came across at times as whiny but given how she was threatened I guess I can cut her some slack.

Don't Bother to Knock runs at a surprisingly fast 76 minutes, but it never feels rushed. Perhaps a bit short but the film does a lot in its running time, even include a couple of musical numbers. 

A showcase for its actors with an engaging story, Don't Bother to Knock is a film that should be better known.


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