February 7, 2013
Don’t Bother to Knock – 1952, US
Marilyn Monroe was just twenty-six when she appeared in Roy Baker’s well-directed Don’t Bother to Knock, and yet throughout the film she looks as if she’s seen a lifetime of pain. In fact, apart from a brief moment in which she joyfully spins around in front of a window, there’s not the slightest hint of the blonde bombshell that later films would play up. In this film, Monroe displays a range that her later films seem intent upon hiding from the public, and as the film progressed, I was less enthralled by Monroe’s beauty than concerned for her character’s well-being. It’s absolutely clear that there is something not quite right about her.
In the film, she plays a young woman named Nell Forbes. Early in the film, Nell arrives at the hotel her uncle Eddy works at to babysit a tenant’s child, yet nothing seems ordinary about the situation. Nell doesn’t walk in smiling, and if she turns heads at all, it’s not because of her appearance. She seems ill at ease and unsure of herself, and her downcast demeanor hints at a past that is much less cheerful than it should have been. Eddy does nothing to remove these impressions. Instead, he speaks to her in a pitch that is a bit higher that it should be, usually a sure sign that someone is trying a little too hard to be positive and reassuring. As we later learn, there’s a very good reason for this.
Don’t Bother to Knock is a cautionary tale about the fragility of life post-World War II and about what can happen when people do not know how to cope with pain. Its lead character is a young airline pilot named Jed Towers (Richard Widmark), who has arrived in New York to see his girlfriend Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft), a lounge singer with her own self-destructive tendencies. In the film’s opening scene, we learn that she recently sent Jed a letter “inviting” him not to see her again. It’s not that she doesn’t love him, she insists, and it’s not that there was anything wrong in their relationship. As she put it, “It’s what was going to be wrong” that she is concerned about. Call it a pre-emptive break-up then. Upset and confused, Jed heads back to his room, and from his window, he just happens to see Nell, decked out in someone else’s fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, in her one moment of unbridled joy. What he does next is not all that surprising, especially given his emotional state.
Don’t Bother to Knock is an easy film to be impressed with, but a tough film to really enjoy. Its tone is bleak, and its characters are all at stages in their lives that are anything but positive. However, a film need not be enjoyable to be a good film. After all, there are plenty of excellent films that people would have a hard time watching again. For some, I feel, Don’t Bother to Knock will be one of those films. This may be partly due to the film’s casting, for I imagine that when many modern viewers think of a Marilyn Monroe film, they do not think of pictures such as this one. However, the film is a reminder that Monroe was an actress with considerable range. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone else delivering the line “It’s wicked to come between people” and arousing as much fear as Monroe does. It is a shame that the films she is most known for almost all have her playing a variation of the same good-natured, humorous character.
The film is not perfect. It has occasional pacing problems, even at just seventy-six minutes long. However, Baker, with the help of screenwriter Daniel Tatadash, manages to maintain the film’s suspense throughout. We feel for these characters. We feel their fear, their angst, and their confusion, and when it’s all said and done, we may just have a bit for sympathy for those less fortunate than we did at the start of the film. I can’t say when I’ll feel like re-watching Don’t Bother to Knock, if ever, but I can say that I’m awfully glad to have seen it once. (on DVD)
3 and a half stars