Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)
Genre: Drama, Film-Noir, Mystery
Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Starring Richard Widmark, Marilyn Monroe, and Anne Bancroft
Plot: After being dumped by his girlfriend, an airline pilot pursues a babysitter in his hotel and gradually realizes she is dangerous.
Trivia: This was Anne Bancroft’s film debut. It was also Marilyn Monroe’s first leading film role, although it was her 18th film. She used the opportunity as an attempt to prove to critics that she could act.
Nothing about the opening credits particularly stand out to me in this one. It seems pretty standard for the time. As the movie opens into the first scene the first though I have is how little time can change in some ways and how much it can in other. There are still angry little old ladies around today, causing a fuss and havoc, but then the immediate cut to a stunningly young Anne Bancroft… time marches on even when we don’t feel like it does. I have never seen her this young and the softness of her features are almost surprising. She has always been lovely, but to see her in her innocence is something else entirely. The transition of her talking to the barkeep and then singing felt off… did that really happen during this time? It feels more forced than natural. And the lip-syncing is not quite right either. I feel like it is her voice but she prerecorded it. I have no problem when it is done well, but this is not done well.
Ah, Marilyn as graced the screen at last with her beautiful face. Sweet Norma Jean will always hold a place in my heart, and her character, Nell, so far seems to play her small town girl charm well. I could watch her talk forever. The way her lips move is so soft and sensual. It is no mystery as to why she became so much more of a sex symbol than anything else. It is the unfortunate part of fame, being sold as a commodity, and her commodity was and still is sex. It isn’t until later, like with so many, that we appreciated the great wealth of other assets she brought to the table. I am reminded of the line from the reported in Valley of the Dolls when Jen dies. “What were her measurements” is still one of the only things cared about with Marilyn, even now decades after her death.
After we get some plot setup with Nell getting the job as Bunny’s babysitter, we journey back to hotel lounge where Lyn is singing again, Jed in attendance. This rendition is a little better but as she starts that third piece, her microphone is too far from her mouth… I know it is a tiny detail, but those kind of inconsistencies tend to glare at me. As she finishes her song, Jed comes to meet her at the bar and through conversation we are able to learn that the breakup letter we see him reading in the beginning came from her.
The cutaway to Nelly trying on the mothers jewelry and then running to the window as a plane passes overhead, a single tear dripping down her face, it is all very lovely as a sequence. The way the film is shot makes me feel like it is all being done in real time. Back to Lyn talking to Jed about her reasons not to marry him, I feel drawn to her character. I relate with her strongly in this scene and the conviction with which the lines are delivered makes it easy to see how she went so far in her career.
Elisha Cook Jr, who plays the elevator operator, is one of my all time favorite male character actors and he does not disappoint in this film. He adds just the right touch of comedy to lighten up the intense drama that is all the scenes surrounding him. Not so much to distract you into thinking this is a comedy, but enough to cut the tension every now and then with a little chuckle. The pun about his job having its ups and downs is prime for that. He delivers the line so easily, you have to think for a minute to make sure you really heard what you just did. Jed’s reaction is much the same and goes to show a sense that script writers seemed to have at the time about what their audience was thinking and feeling.
The meet-cute between Nell and Jed is indeed cute as she flirts back and forth with him through the blinds. People say that Disney gave girls a false expectation of reality, I say it is things like this. Marilyn Monroe can flirt using blinds, sure, but I would probably look like a spaz and have the police called on me. Though the phone call to Nell can also be seen as a false expectation. No man calls a girl like that today and gets results. At least they better not. This is the kind of message that girls get on Tinder along with a dick pic, and those are not cool. “I’m lonely, frustrated, and I have a bottle of rye” is not a good pick up line, just for future information.
More is revealed about Nell as Eddie comes up to check on her and finds her decked out, head to toe, in the mothers belongings. She has a longing for nice things, but her mourning of a lover that died (presumably involving a plane somehow) keeps her from moving on to find the happiness she dreams of. A psychologist could pick this apart, I am sure, but I will have to do the best I can with just my fascination with character building. The resolve with which she reties the sash to the robe after dismissing Eddie is not a good sign in my opinion. It seems like she will be inviting Jed over after all. At this point, I am not sure if that idea is worse for Jed or for Nell, but either way I worry for Bunny caught in the middle of all this. This is why I don’t use babysitters unless I absolutely have to. I have seen way too many movies where it all went wrong.
Through all of her hiding and setting up, I wonder if she remembers that the mother said she would be back up at 11:00 to check on things. If Nell is still dressed up in the mothers clothes with a man in the room, it is not going to turn out well at all. There are so many ways this can go wrong. This film is like a poster child for rape culture, first of all. Each word that drips from Jed’s, or should I say “Billy”, mouth makes me cringe and uncomfortable.
As Nell learns that Jed is a pilot and begins to invent an entire history for him, the true depth of her cracked psyche seems to be unearthed. She is now making Jed into the lover she lost by exaggerating any similarities and erasing the differences. As Bunny comes out and discovers them I am reminded again of why I don’t so babysitters. Gods help the person who treats my children like that if I trust them to watch them when I am not around. “If you don’t pay any attention to them, they’ll stop.” Okay, how about we use that concept on you, Nell? Oh god… is she going to push her out of the window?? No… NO! Get your hands off her, Nell! Whew… I really thought she was gonna die. Her speech to Bunny is chilling and she makes no secret to her intent. She is truly a dark person.
Nell and Eddie talking while Jed hides in the bathroom is another instance where I feel sympathy for Nell. I know what it is to be sheltered and held back, and I also know what it is like to have anxieties and depression because of that life. It is unfortunate that she did not get the right help because if this story were told today I could see it going a lot differently. Actually, this is one of the few classic movies that I feel could be remade with different story elements and be just as effective. I wonder if that is already out there. Any readers that might know of one, please let me know so I can add it to my list!
The climax of the film is building quickly as the nosy old lady and her husband come to the room to investigate. We see that Nell has trussed up and gagged Bunny, the couple witness Jed coming out of Bunny’s room, and Nell plays off her fear and depression over his escape as fear over her life. She accuses Jed of bursting into the room and holding them hostage. As the woman is calling for help, Nell locks Eddie in the closet and a murderous look comes over her faces as she turned toward Bunny’s door.
Below in the dining room as the tray of dishes comes crashing to the floor, we see that the mother’s instinct catches into gear at last and her husband suggests she go check on Bunny now. It is all fortuitous timing since Nell has just gotten the couple to leave her, saying that she had something she needed to do by herself. Everything seems to be happening at once, like clockwork. All the people (and animals) coming together at once as they realize, either fully or instinctively, that Nell is bad news and Bunny needs help. Mom comes to the rescue followed quickly by Jed, but as Jed helps Eddie out of the closet, Nell slips away downstairs.
The character development as Jed talks Nell “down from the edge” so to speak feels sincere. Nell feels sincere as well, making me feel that if the trivia I found most interesting about this film is true, then she succeeded in her attempt to prove she had more acting capabilities than she was previously given credit for. This movie was really surprising for me, though I guess it shouldn’t have been. I have always been a fan of Film-Noir and this was a beautiful example of it. I rate this a 4.8/5 and will try to find to add to my collection very soon.