Friday, December 14, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK (1952)

Marilyn Monroe is best remembered today for her work in musical comedies like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and Some Like It Hot (1959), but the blonde bombshell appeared in darker films, as well, among them the 1952 psychological thriller, Don't Bother to Knock, in which Monroe plays a mentally disturbed young woman whose employment as a hotel babysitter turns out to be a Very Bad Idea. Fans of Monroe who have only seen the lighter pictures will find this film a fascinating glimpse at a different side of the iconic star, one that demonstrates her talent as a real actress in a complex dramatic role. Directed by Roy Ward Baker, the movie also features Richard Widmark and Anne Bancroft, along with an excellent supporting cast that includes Elisha Cook, Jr. and Jim Backus.

Widmark plays the lead character, Jed, a pilot whose relationship with hotel chanteuse Lyn (Bancroft) is on the rocks. Stung by her rejection, Jed puts the moves on Nell (Monroe), but he soon discovers that the young woman is dangerously unhinged. Her instability spirals out of control as she confuses Jed with her own dead lover and blames her charge, Bunny, an innocent little girl, for coming between them.

Widmark, a veteran of noir thrillers, is an interesting choice for the lead, but he pulls it off. We expect him to be callous and unsympathetic, but his shifting perspective over the course of the picture works well. His girlfriend correctly accuses him of lacking "an understanding heart" during the opening scenes, and we see that flaw demonstrated in his willingness to lie to and seduce Nell; later, however, he comes to pity and worry about both Nell and Bunny. This encounter changes Jed in some profound and positive ways, putting him on an upward arc even as Nell slides down. Anne Bancroft makes her very first screen appearance as Jed's girl, Lyn, and she's a good foil to Monroe, although she appears in relatively few scenes. Elisha Cook, Jr. makes excellent use of his small part as the elevator operator who is also Nell's uncle, while Jim Backus provides plenty of personality for the supporting character of Bunny's businessman father.

Monroe brings fragility and fierce energy to her role as Nell; we realize right away that there's something wrong with the girl, but it's hard to pin down until the details of her past start spilling out. When she first appears she seems repressed, plain even, and very, very young; there's no hint of the sex appeal for which the actress would become so famous. Later, in borrowed finery, she plays at being a woman of the world, but the broken heart and mind of her character remain central to our perception of her. It's a shame that Monroe didn't get more parts like this one over the course of her career; it might have given more substance to our sense of her.

Try Niagara (1953) for another thriller with Monroe. You'll find Richard Widmark playing more typical characters in Kiss of Death (1947) and Road House (1948), but he also turns up in some good Westerns and more straightforward dramas. Anne Bancroft would go on to win a Best Actress Oscar for The Miracle Worker (1962) and achieve Hollywood immortality as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967). If you like Donna Corcoran as Bunny, catch her in Angels in the Outfield (1951), as well. Roy Ward Baker also directed A Night to Remember (1953) and a number of Hammer horror films.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.