' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Don't Bother To Knock (1952)

Friday, October 18, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Don't Bother To Knock (1952)

Despite having some knowledge of the direction in which “Don’t Bother To Knock” would go, it still wound up knocking me slightly dizzy all on account of Marilyn Monroe. When she comes gliding through the revolving doors of the McKinley Hotel on the mean streets of NYC, looking very much like the naïf fresh off the bus from Oregon that she is, taking a babysitting gig up on the 8th floor and reading her sweet little charge a sweet little story and then sweetly handing her a sweet little teddy bear, I swear I forgot anything I already knew. Even when she slipped into the nightgown, assumed the fuzzy slippers and donned the earrings of the mother of the little girl in her care, I merely fooled myself into thinking all Marilyn wanted was a daughter and family to call her own.

Then, finally, the camera finds a close-up of her wrists, and I saw the scars, and I was jarred back into my pre-gathered knowledge. Yet even THEN I found myself re-lulled into a false sense of security because, well, I thought, maybe she was so overwhelmed by the fury of life she felt she had no way out. But also, because she’s Marilyn Monroe.


Richard Widmark is the other one who can’t quite allow himself to be rid of her lilting clasp, no matter how frightening and tight it may turn. A pilot who has come to the McKinley to win back the woman who broke his heart, only to fail, he first spies Marilyn – let’s call her Nell – through the window across the hotel’s courtyard. Yearning for a whiskey drinking companion, Widmark – let’s call him Jed – invites himself over. She’s gorgeous, after all. But she’s also unstable. He sees a suitcase with the wrong initials. Nell says that belongs to her sister. He sees a man’s shoes. Nell says those belong to her sister’s husband. The sweet little girl bumbles sleepily out of her bedroom. Nell finally breaks down and admits the truth. Jed goes to leave. He doesn’t. He can’t. How could he?!

“Don’t Bother To Knock”, which was written by Daniel Taradash (who won the adapted screenplay Oscar a year later for “From Here To Eternity”) and based on a book by Charlotte Armstrong, never leaves the McKinley Hotel, and opens very much in the vein of noir. Jed’s ex, Lyn (Anne Bancroft), slumped at the bar, chatting up the bartender (“I’ve been thinking” – “That serious, huh?”), before the spotlight finds her and she takes up a mic and sings a standard. You have to respect a songstress who employs a barstool and a bar rather than a green room and a stage. Meanwhile, upstairs in his room, where apparently Lyn’s performance gets piped in, Jed smokes and drinks and paces and revisits Lyn’s Dear John letter. He’s come to win her back. We know this will end in failure. Unless the film wishes to turn down a different avenue. Which it does. Which is when Nell floats into the lobby.

Her Uncle Eddie (Elisha Cook Jr.) is the elevator operator, seemingly an amiable chap who just wants to help his niece and, thus, scores her the babysitting gig. She condemns him as pushy and manipulative, un-attentive to her real needs, but eventually we see this may merely be her imagination. This is because (and while I could issue a parenthetical spoiler alert, I will not) Nell is revealed as mentally ill, fresh out of the psychiatric ward, intent on re-setting herself, but shown to be much less than remedied.


This is what makes Monroe’s casting so genius. It might be fashionable to state she was playing apart from her usual bombshell roles and mining psychological depth, but I think that sort of misses the point. Consider Ray Liotta as the psychologically unstable cop in “Unlawful Entry.” His inherent Ray Liotta-ness is so pronounced that from the get-go you know – you KNOW – he’s unstable. How Madeleine Stowe fails to glean the Ray Liotta-ness emanating from his character in waves is beyond me.

On the other hand, because of Monroe’s inherent Marilyn-ness, you and Jed are on a completely level playing field. How can this woman – so soft, so angelic – be off her rocker? Even when she’s tormenting that sweet little girl and conking hapless Eddie on the head, it’s difficult for Jed to flee and difficult for you to want Jed to flee because, well, she’s Marilyn, man. Perhaps that’s the casting agent stacking the deck, but then that’s what I found so fascinating.

Theoretically “Don’t Bother To Knock” is about the way in which Jed is able to overcome his own needs to help this woman in obvious mental peril, and how this allows Lyn to see him in a new light. I was somewhat unconvinced, however, not least because of the final scene, which almost seemed callous in the face of Nell’s fate as she is led out those same doors she came in. But maybe that’s just my Marilyn-ness Affinity showing itself once more. And maybe that’s what “Don’t Bother To Knock” knew long before the real Marilyn met her sad demise – that no matter how bad things got for her, no matter how mismanaged her life may have been, no matter long she may have been gone now, we just can’t stop bringing ourselves to care for her.

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