24 September 2010

Don't Bother to Knock

Don’t Bother to Knock One of Monroe’s Finest
By Kristin Battestella

We know all the big, colorful, sexy, sing along Marilyn Monroe films, but 1952’s Don’t Bother to Knock is a black and white suspense-fest filled with great performances and crazy melodrama.

Lounge singer Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft) has broken up with wayward pilot Jed Towers (Richard Widmark).  While she sings downstairs in the McKinley Hotel, Jed observes the young but flirty and standoffish Nell (Marilyn Monroe) across the courtyard from his room.  Nell’s uncle, Eddie the elevator operator (Elisha Cook Jr.) got the shy girl a babysitting job for the night.  While Ruth and Peter Jones (Lurene Tuttle and Jim Backus) attend a dinner conference downstairs in the hotel, Nell is supposed to be watching their daughter Bunny (Donna Corcoran).  However, Nell tries on Ruth’s negligee, allows Jed over for a drink, and puts her charge in serious jeopardy. 

Director Roy Baker (A Night to Remember, The Asylum) and Oscar winning screenwriter Daniel Taradash’s (From Here to Eternity) tale from Charlotte Armstrong’s novel is a little too short at under 80 minutes, but the real time suspense is swift and unfolds smartly.  If told today, this would be overlong and nastier, without any room for the speculation and innuendo that does so well here. The concurrent storylines cross, intertwine, and build until the audience is hooked into seeing how everything comes together.  The black and white photography is moody, and the old school music ties the scenes together as the tension escalates. Don’t Bother to Knock is also full of subtext and latent kinky, especially compared to the wholesome two beds and talk of marriage being the only route for a woman who lost her beau in World War II.  Everybody has a past here; and the issues of death, suicide, abuse, and institutions are done nicely despite the Hollywood Code and the usual blinders of the time. The nefarious suggestions and violence build satisfactorily, cumulating in a great finale and a tale well told.

Don't Bother to KnockWell, when one thinks homely, one doesn’t often think of Marilyn Monroe!  Instead of the usual glasses and dumb blonde routine later perfected in films like How to Marry A Millionaire, Monroe dresses frumpy, looks super young, and yes, she can act.  Her marshmellowy voice is usually sultry, but in Don’t Bother to Knock, her tone sounds young, even immature but somehow mischievous and not all there.  We expect her in the singing gal role, so her off-kilter manner throws us for the loop even more. Nell is even a little creepy over her firm insistence that she doesn’t eat candy- and its made all the weirder when we see her sneak a piece of chocolate and snoop in the Mrs.’ jewelry.  Monroe looks beautiful in black and white, especially since the platinum locks and red lips can’t dominate and take over her performance.  She seems more towards her natural hair coloring here, and the muted silver palette adds to Nell’s melancholy atmosphere.  Never without her sex appeal of course, there’s also something somewhat kinky about the way Don’t Bother to Knock plays on the jailbait and voyeuristic tones.  She can say ‘hello’ in an oh so tempting come hither tone, yet Nell can’t pronounce ‘liaison’.  Goodness me, I dare say Marilyn Monroe- the tragic and much beloved screen goddess- is downright scary in the way she mishandles her charge.  I don’t understand why Monroe wasn’t given more meaty, purely dramatic roles after this fine turn in Don’t Bother to Knock.

As usual, Richard Widmark (Kiss of Death, The Alamo) is on form with a chip on his shoulder and a look in his eye.  Despite seeing a lot of his films, I’m still not used to seeing him as the young and handsome lead. Again, the sniff of predatory kink is tossed around with the way Jed moves on from one girl to the next.  He’s a swarthy pilot who knows how to get liquored up and lay on the cynicism. Initially, he has no problem in taking advantage of the unstable Monroe, knowing there’s a kid in the adjoining room adds to the unsavory vibes as well.  However, as Don’t Bother to Knock progresses, the black and white of our players is not so easily distinguished. The tables are turned and we can’t wait to see how Jed handles both his women.  Let us not forget, this is Anne Bancroft’s (The Miracle Worker, The Graduate) debut!  Her singing Lyn is lovely, broods wonderfully, and who knew she could carry a damn fine tune?   Her good girl with short dark hair and nightclub style throws us another curve against Monroe’s blonde and wholesome appearance.  For such a short film, there’s plenty of talent here onscreen and off. 

Elisha Cook Jr. (The Maltese Falcon, House on Haunted Hill) adds to Don’t Bother to Knock’s support with a great balance between the nice, caring elevator operator and the perhaps creepy uncle.  Donna Corcoran (Million Dollar Mermaid) is also sassy as Bunny.  She’s a little annoying, and with some of the whining, Bunny’s age is a tough to figure.  She’s a little too old and smart to be so babied-although she is supposed to be looked after, isn’t she? Lurene Tuttle (Psycho, Julia) and Jim Backus (Rebel without a Cause, Mr. Magoo, Gilligan’s Island) are also the perfectly nostalgic yuppie parents.  They are upscale but a lot of fun, as is ‘peeping pansy’ Verna Felton (The Flintstones, Sleeping Beauty) as nosey hotel neighbor Mrs. Ballew.  Don Beddoe (Best Years of Our Lives) is also charming as the straight fodder to his Mrs.

A fifties fashionista and music connoisseur will also love the style of Don’t Bother to Knock.  Though black and white, the cuts of our ladies’ frocks are tight and tempting.  The men also look dynamite in their suits and fedoras.  Fans of frequent Monroe dresser Travilla can study the depths of costume without color here.  Swinging music fans will also delight in the hip jazz tunes and brooding ballads of the pre- rock and roll days. Perhaps not all modern audiences will like the old school scoring; but the music adds layers of emotion to the piece and most of the tunes are diegetic.  Look closely and you will see no televisions at this hotel! Built in radios in every room broadcast the hotel’s live music, uniting the sounds and the action- when was the last time you saw that for real, much less onscreen? Of course, we have the usual drinking and smoking of the time, as well as some colloquial dialogue that even threw me the classic film buff and wordsmith for a loop.  What on earth is a “cooch dancer”?  I get teased for using the word “ought” but “oughn’t”? The old speak, great tunes, and upscale hotel stylings make the perfect backdrop for Don’t Bother to Knock’s heady period drama.

Don't Bother To KnockSurprisingly, there are subtitles here on my netflix rental.  As usual, however, the features are just ho-hum trailers and promos for the Marilyn Monroe Diamond Collection set.  These small stills galleries and unfulfilling restoration slides just don’t cut it in this instant day and media age, even for older films where materials may be understandably rare.  How wonderful it would have been to have classic film scholars and Monroe experts giving commentary or panel discussions!  Though available at Amazon On Demand, I sincerely hope blu-ray restoration and proper featuring for Don’t Bother to Knock and the rest of Monroe’s films are coming soon already. Get with the program Fox! 

Not only will fans of Marilyn Monroe revel with Don’t Bother to Knock, but classic lovers and students of old school film technique will enjoy as well.  Modern audiences looking for an intelligent thriller should also try this one.  Return to the fifties with nail biting suspense and Don’t Bother to Knock.

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