From 1950 to the beginning of 1952, Monroe’s star power had risen steadily, but she couldn’t break through into leading lady status. She had a small role in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), which led into a series of supporting parts playing second fiddle to stars like Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950), Claudette Colbert in Let’s Make it Legal (1951) and Ginger Rogers in We’re Not Married! (1952). She also scored a key role in Fritz Lang’s noir melodrama Clash by Night (1952), but again, she was slotted into a secondary role, with the lead going to the Queen of Noir, Barbara Stanwyck. That turned out not to matter, because Monroe stole the show, setting her up for the lead role in Don’t Bother to Knock—not only her first starring role, but a chance for her to carry a film with more than just her looks. And she certainly made the most of the opportunity, turning in a tremendous, tour de force performance as a mentally unhinged babysitter.
The film begins by setting up two narratives that don’t take long to get tangled up. Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft, in her first film role), the hotel’s lounge singer, has just finished grumbling to the bartender about her lousy love life when who should walk in but her on-again, off-again beau, Jed Towers (Richard Widmark). He wants to rekindle the romance. She does not. When he presses her for a reason, she tells him that he’s a jerk who only thinks about himself—a claim that rings true, as Towers oozes arrogance and selfishness from the moment he first appears. Defeated in his quest, Towers decides to take a room in the hotel for the night before he splits.
Meanwhile, Eddie Forbes (Cook Jr.), the hotel’s longtime hotel operator, has lined up a babysitting gig for his sister, Nell (Monroe). All she has to do is watch a young girl named Bunny (Donna Corcoran) for a few hours while her parents, who are staying at the hotel, head out to a banquet at which Bunny’s father is receiving an award. It’s a simple job—read the kid a story, put her to bed, stay awake until the parents get home—and Eddie assures them both that Nell will have no problem handling it.
Except that, from the moment Monroe first appears on the screen, it’s obvious that something is deeply wrong with Nell. It’s tough—actually, its practically impossible—to pin down exactly what makes her character so unsettling, which makes the first part of the film even more unnerving. There’s just something off about her. We know with absolute certainty that Nell should not be put in charge of a child, even if we don’t know why.
Shortly after Nell reads Bunny a bedtime story and forces her to go to bed, Jed—whose room just happens to be across the courtyard—sees her through his window. It isn’t long before he has figured out her room number, called her up, and invited himself over for a drink. While Nell initially resists, she eventually calls him back and tells him to come over.
No spoilers here, except to say that the reason for Nell’s strange behavior is eventually revealed, putting a unique and perhaps one-of-a-kind, female-oriented spin on a storyline that is often addressed in film noir—several times in the amnesia subgenre—but almost always from a predominantly male perspective. Given the fact that the plausibility of the entire film’s plot hinges on the believability of Nell’s character, it was necessary for Monroe to turn in an A-level performance. Thankfully, she absolutely nails the role. In all of her scenes, she infuses the proceedings with a sense of dread and impending doom due to her bizarre and unpredictable actions. The film features two of the most frightening scenes in any noir ever made. To describe them would be to rob them of their potency. But don’t worry—you’ll know them when you see them.
Like most B noirs, Don’t Bother to Knock was made with a small budget, and it shows. The entire film takes place within the confines of the hotel, but thankfully, the trimmed-down production costs don’t rob the film of its power. In fact, they elevate it, as the hotel’s tight quarters only heighten the tension due to their claustrophobic feel. The film features a number of firsts—Monroe’s first job as a lead character, Ann Bancroft’s first film role, and Roy Ward Baker’s first Hollywood directing gig. Baker spent several years working in England before 20th Century Fox brought him across the pond. As it turned out, the only Hollywood films Baker ever directed—Don’t Bother to Knock, Night without Sleep (1952) and the 3-D extravaganza Inferno (1953)—were all noir. In this film, Baker puts his skills on display by keeping the plot moving. With the exception of some of the opening scenes between Bancroft and Widmark, the film is tightly plotted and executed, clocking in a brief 76 minutes and using almost all of that time to maximum effect.
Don’t Bother to Knock not only cemented Marilyn Monroe as an actress worthy of serious attention, it also proved that, to make an effective, disturbing noir, you don’t need double-crossing tough guys killing each other in dark alleys. Yes, the darkness of noir certainly thrives in the male-dominated realm of the criminal underworld. But this film proves that that same darkness can just as easily show up at your doorstep in the form of a young, attractive babysitter.
Post your comments below or at The Back Alley