“Wash your face, brush your teeth, and say your PRAYERS.” Marilyn Monroe’s first plunge into a dramatic starring role casts her as a dangerously unstable babysitter in a hotel-set suspense thriller co-starring Richard Widmark and Anne Bancroft. Ms. Monroe may not be Ethel Barrymore (thankfully) but the role suits her well — to play a woman unhinged by low self-esteem and melancholy romantic reveries, she may have tapped personal experience.
Don’t Bother to Knock
1952 / B&W / 1.37 Academy / 76 min. / Street Date March 20, 2018 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: Marilyn Monroe, Richard Widmark, Marilyn Monroe, Anne Bancroft, Donna Corcoran, Jeanne Cagney, Lurene Tuttle, Elisha Cook Jr., Jim Backus, Verna Felton, Willis Bouchey.
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Film Editor: George A. Gittens
Written by Daniel Taradash from a novel by Charlotte Armstrong
Produced by Julian Blaustein
Directed by Roy (Ward) Baker
Although she rates second billing below Richard Widmark, Don’t Bother to Knock is said to be Marilyn Monroe’s first starring role, with her name above the title. The avalanche of fan letters to MM at Fox had indicated a soaring popularity ever since 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve. But the studio continued to put her in supporting roles in light comedies, like Love Nest and Let’s Make it Legal. She was becoming the biggest thing since Shirley Temple and Betty Grable, but they weren’t sure what to do with her. They instead loaned out Marilyn to RKO for a showy supporting role in Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night. Fritz Lang didn’t appreciate Marilyn’s tardiness and general lack of discipline, and he really hated the fact that Marilyn’s drama coach Natasha Lytess served as a secondary director. Lytess had been with the actress since 1948 at Columbia. Marilyn became the critical favorite in Clash by Night, possibly because hers was the one cheerful character in Lang’s dour picture.
Fox chose Don’t Bother to Knock for Marilyn because they finally decided that she was ready for a serious main role, something that the Reinhart-schooled Lytess didn’t believe. That probably sums up the kind of support Monroe received from her various coaches, most of which had career reasons of their own for attaching themselves to her. Marilyn’s role in Knock was surely something she might know how to play — a lonely, disturbed woman, stifled by low self-esteem and needy for affection. Biographer Donald Spoto described director Roy Baker as unhelpful and bullying, a tactic that never worked with Marilyn. Director Baker reportedly thought she was hopeless and used all of her first takes, because she seemed more natural when barely rehearsed. Richard Widmark would eventually go down on record on the subject, affirming that Marilyn on the set was perceived as a flop, but her presence would miraculously bloom in the dailies. Nobody could get her onto the stage, nothing works — but then in the screening room everything she did looked good, and she would steal every scene. Co-stars Anne Bancroft and Jim Backus were Marilyn boosters as well.
For a Fox picture filmed entirely on sound stages with no major production set-pieces, Don’t Bother to Knock is a better-than-average suspense thriller. The story is really quite thin, a character study tied to postwar adjustment problems. Airline pilot Jed Towers (Richard Widmark) has come to an older New York hotel to find out why his singer girlfriend Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft) has called off their romance. Lyn performs nightly with a band in the hotel’s bar-nightclub, so she can’t avoid Jed when he shows up expecting to easily win her back. Jed wants a carefree relationship based on the nights when he’s in town; Lyn wants something more and angrily rejects him as too selfish and cold. Jed retires to his room, but almost immediately strikes up a flirtation with an attractive blonde he sees in a window across the way, in room 809. Thinking her a fast conquest he invites himself over to her room, but is soon neck deep in trouble: Nell Forbes (Monroe) is a seriously unbalanced young woman. Actually on a babysitting job obtained by her Uncle Eddie, the elevator operator (Elisha Cook, Jr.,) Nell can’t resist changing into the jewelry and nightgown of the woman whose child she is minding, Ruth Jones (Lurene Tuttle). Nell has been released too soon from the asylum, and constantly projects her fantasies onto reality. Having lost her lover when he was a pilot in the war, she confuses other men for him — even Jed. She has attempted suicide at least once, and is capable of violent action.
The trailer for Don’t Bother to Knock sells Marilyn’s Nell as a sexually wanton harlot beckoning Jed Towers into her lurid clutches. She’s more accurately a confused precursor of the deranged but sympathetic psychopaths that would soon dominate horror thrillers. Nell’s mental misalignment is the result of melancholia over a boyfriend lost in a plane crash, and she ties up and torments the helpless moppet Bunny (Donna Corcoran) because she’s convinced that the child is ruining her reunion with her lost love. There’s also a moment in which it appears Nell is encouraging Bunny to fall out of a window. Sensitive viewers in 1952 might not have enjoyed this disturbing content. Is Nell really Bette Davis’s The Nanny at an earlier age?
Jed first discovers his dream date in the hotel window across from his own, a setup that makes us wonder if this show might have been a slight influence on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window or Richard Quine’s Pushover. Nell does seem to be asking for company as she prances about in another woman’s lingerie. Later on, a nosy hotel resident (Verna Felton, excellent in Picnic) becomes alarmed at the scary window episode, but the house detective ignores her complaint. A switchboard operator (Jeanne Cagney) helps save the day, ironically because she’s a snoop who listens in on guests’ conversations.
Screenwriter Daniel Taradash protects Richard Widmark’s image, to keep Jed Towers from coming off as Lyn sees him, as a smart-aleck user. The scene that shows that Jed has integrity takes place in an elevator, where he is given the once-over by an attractive, very forward woman (who?). Jed exchanges telling looks with her until Eddie the elevator operator shoots him a quick head-shake indicating that the woman is bad news — a call girl? Although Jed doesn’t take the bait, he digs out his little black booka gander before spotting Every Horny Male’s Dream across the way.
That Jed is a pilot helps Nell fixate on him as her fantasy lover. But after a single opportunistic smooch, he reveals himself as an emotional softie who adores children and elevator drivers, only wants the best for everyone, etc. His lust for Nell transforms into paternalistic concern, thus sidestepping all the sex in the advertising sell. Widmark must do some careful acting to overcome audience resistance: most any man with red corpuscles would indulge whatever games Nell wants to play. Even George Bailey could recognize “an interesting situation.” Few men walk away when a girl says, “I’ll be any way you want me.”
The only other impediment to credibility stems from the way Eddie reacts when Nell abuses her employers’ trust and privacy. He catches his niece dressed in the wife’s personal belongings, which should be his signal to panic and make sure she puts things back the way they were, right now. With fourteen years on this one job, you’d think Eddie would have a better sense of self-preservation. We also wonder how ugly the next scene would be, if the movie didn’t stop where it does — Eddie would surely be given the boot, and maybe the house detective too. Bunny’s parents would have a hell of a great lawsuit opportunity. If the incident blew up into a tabloid scandal, Jed might have difficulty keeping his job, too.
Marilyn is not yet in control as an actress, but she plays her crazed babysitter in a satisfactory manner. She commands the screen, which is all the audience really wants. Her shifting moods from tearful seductiveness to dangerous rage aren’t skilled, but she has no trouble investing Nell with a palpable melancholy. At one point Nell laments that she didn’t have a single pretty dress all the way through high school. Fans aware of MM’s childhood may wonder if all she needed to do was recall her years at Hollygrove Orphange (which still stands about four blocks from Savant headquarters). When called on to be completely bonkers, Marilyn is okay too. For her maxed-out deranged scene menacing Bunny, she manages the same google-eyed stare Billy Wilder coaxed out of her in The Seven Year Itch, when she gets all excited about the Creature from the Black Lagoon in a Dazzledent commercial.
A remake of Don’t Bother to Knock would have a much higher body count, complete with gory details, some kinky sex and disturbing scenes of the little girl in jeopardy. And don’t forget explosions. The idea that a babysitter might threaten her charge with a push from a high window, or bind and gag her when she becomes an inconvenience, is now familiar from the nightly tabloid entertainment national network news. The reassuring thing is that everyone else in the hotel cares so much, from the switchboard operator to the nosy guests. I want to live in a world where strangers look out for each other like that. Seeing Anne Bancroft’s new appreciation for Widmark is something of a strange step — we were expecting jealous fireworks, or at least a moment of misunderstanding. No matter what the context, if my girlfriend or wife caught me with Marilyn Monroe her first reaction wouldn’t be a warm smile. Twenty minutes after parting with Anne, Hound Dog Jed took off in pursuit of the babe next door. So what if he can suddenly say the word ‘love?’
Although not an expensive picture, Fox made certain to provide their budding star with a lot of performing support. Richard Widmark probably signed on the knowledge that he’s playing a nice guy, not a psycho killer, crook or action man in a uniform. It’s a solid opportunity for Anne Bancroft as well, although she hasn’t much chance of outshining the hot-cha publicist’s dream in the central role. They say that Marilyn Monroe was being groomed to replace Betty Grable, but to us it looks as if Anne Bancroft were being set up with a hairstyle and general appearance to match that of Ava Gardner. I don’t know if Bancroft did her own singing in the nightclub scenes.
In a just world Elisha Cook Jr. wouldn’t play Marilyn’s uncle, but instead the guy who wins her in the end. It only seems right, considering that Cook’s unloved characters so often came to a bad end. Almost always cast as frumpy types, Lurene Tuttle is here treated with respect. She also cuts a good figure in an evening gown. When Monroe tries on Tuttle’s nightgown, it fits! Willis Bouchey does well with the cliché of the wise bartender who dispenses romantic advice. The reason that his marriage isn’t plagued with a lot of arguments with his wife, he says, is that “she sleeps a lot.”
Pro kid player Donna Corcoran looks a little old to be so baby-ish, but works up a significant amount of child-victim distress. After this traumatic experience Bunny will likely end up in a nuthouse cell next to Nell, wailing “I was assaulted by a Sex Goddess.” Speaking of Marilyn’s primary contribution to 1950s culture, her famous form splayed out across the original poster looks like a warm-up for her legendary Playboy centerfold. That tells us what Fox was selling in August of ’52, even if the text in the trailer shouts that Marilyn is now an ACTRESS.
Considering how few good things the cast had to say about director Roy Baker, his work is unfussy and reasonably sensitive. Under his full name Roy Ward Baker, he would later make his name as the director of the impressive epic A Night to Remember and Hammer Films’ Quatermass and the Pit. Baker also did a fine job the next year on Fox’s 3-D winner, Inferno, coincidentally another Twilight Time release.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Don’t Bother to Knock is a nigh- perfect encoding of the show, both picture and sound. Lucien Ballard’s smooth lighting doesn’t go for the extreme effects seen John Alton pictures, yet we believe that all those standing sets on the Fox lot are a functioning Manhattan hotel. Although Marilyn’s close-ups are of course given extra attention, the movie never stops dead just to admire her. During one dramatic reveal, her close-up is filtered softer than elsewhere. It doesn’t look like a glamour touch, but an expressionistic effect to make Nell seem unfocused, ‘not all there.’
The disc contains a pair of TV Biography episodes, one on Monroe and another just as good on Richard Widmark. The NTSC-to-HD conversion is very good.
There isn’t much non-diegetic music in the movie. (I can use diegetic in a sentence, but am still working on ‘quotidian.’) The disc’s isolated music track mentions no composer. Lionel Newman is listed as musical director, a credit that to me denotes the guy who pulls a music track together from existing cues. The main title’s ‘city’ theme reminds me of the next year’s Widmark hit Pickup on South Street, which was composed by Leigh Harline. Fox had stopped slapping Alfred Newman’s ‘Street Scene’ atop all of its urban noir titles, but did they continue to save money by reusing scores?
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes tell us about the very good use of radio tunes heard in Room 809, along with a live mike feed of the dance band in the nightclub downstairs. Perhaps the old standards we hear were already licensed by Fox. I assume this because the song “A Journey to a Star” from The Gang’s All Here peeks through at one point. Ms. Kirgo points out a number of ‘firsts’ in the film. She also tells us that when new it wasn’t considered a great success, which is surprising. It certainly didn’t put the brakes on Marilyn Monroe’s climb to superstardom.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Don’t Bother to Knock
Movie: Very Good – Excellent
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, 45-minute TV docus Marilyn Monroe: The Mortal Goddess and Richard Widmark: Strength of Characters trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: April 6, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson