‘Don’t Bother to Knock’ a showcase for Monroe’s talent

Don’t Bother to Knock”/1952/Twentieth Century Fox/76 min.

Richard Widmark and Marilyn Monroe

For any fool who still questions Marilyn Monroe’s depth as an actress, “Don’t Bother To Knock” should be required viewing. In this 1952 film directed by Roy Ward Baker and written by Daniel Taradash, Monroe stars with film noir icons Richard Widmark and Elisha Cook, Jr. and entirely holds her own.

She plays Nell Forbes, a vulnerable and mysterious young woman who might be dangerous. Well, if you look at the movie poster, she’s definitely dangerous, though the image (Marilyn wears a shiny bright-red bustier) is a bit misleading — Nell doesn’t wear anything quite that daring. Of course, no matter what she wears, she’s still uber sexy.

Anyway, Nell has recently moved to NYC, from Washington state, to make a fresh start after a long recovery from a broken heart (a pilot who died in World War Two). Her sole contact in the big city is her ever-nervous and slightly creepy uncle (Cook Jr.), an elevator operator at the McKinley Hotel. When a couple staying at the hotel needs a baby-sitter, Uncle Eddie taps Nell for the job. Lurene Tuttle and Jim Backus play the parents; Donna Corcoran is their daughter Bunny.

Once the little girl goes to bed, Nell kills time by trying on Mrs. Jones’ jewelry, perfume and a negligee. She also notices Jed Towers (Widmark) in a room across the courtyard. He’s a pilot in from Chicago trying to patch things up with ex-girlfriend Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft), a sultry and svelte singer who performs at the hotel lounge.

Nell and Jed flirt from afar and he eventually joins her in the Jones’ room, bearing a wicked smile and a bottle of rye. It slowly becomes clear that Nell needs more tonic than a handsome cocky stranger with hard liquor can provide. (Rats!) By leading Nell toward help, Jed reveals a side of himself that changes his relationship with Lyn.

Mirrors (and their suggestion of fractured reality) pop up frequently in film noir.

Though the plot’s quite simple, the film’s strong direction and writing as well as resonant performances from some of the finest actors of the era infuse it with tension that fairly crackles. Luminous, fragile, restless and alluring, Monroe brings an undercurrent of torment and confusion to this memorable role.

Widmark appeals as the insolent yet sympathetic suitor. And the supporting cast is marvelous; in addition to Backus and Tuttle, there’s Verna Felton and Don Beddoe (nosy hotel residents), Willis Bouchey (the hotel bartender), Corcoran as the cute kid, and of course Cook Jr. and Bancroft.

The story is based on the novel “Mischief” by best-selling suspense author Charlotte Armstrong; Taradash wrote the script a year before he won the Oscar for adapting “From Here to Eternity.” “Don’t Bother to Knock” also offers moments of wry humor, such as when Jed asks the bartender if he fights and argues with his wife. The bartender’s deadpan reply: “Some of the time she sleeps.”

If you are a Marilyn fan, you’ll love her even more after seeing this movie and you’ll have definitive proof of her sensitivity and subtlety as an artist from early in career, just in case you ever happen to be chatting with someone who is dismissive of her talent. In 1952, given the way she was marketed and managed, you could forgive an assessment based purely on her physical assets. Nearly 60 years later, however, so much has changed. 😉

Btw, I found a wonderful blog called Blonde & Red. Author Rosanna “loves vintage fashion, red lipstick and Marilyn Monroe” and each week runs Marilyn Mondays. Enjoy!