Noir City at SIFF – Don’t Bother to Knock
Tonight’s Noir City line-up at SIFF Cinema features a film that contains one of the best performances of Marilyn Monroe’s career. I believe that Monroe was a much finer actress than she is often given credit for, with her sex symbol image and tragic death dominating more of her legacy than her work does. She also gained a reputation for being hard to work with, because she often got stage fright, and had trouble remembering her lines. But she had gifts beyond her looks, and 1952’s Don’t Bother to Knock showcases those.
Roy Ward Baker directed the film, from a script that screenwriter Daniel Taradash adapted from a novel by Charlotte Armstrong. (Taraadash would win an Oscar for the following year’s From Here to Eternity.) The story takes place in a hotel, where the lives of a nervous young woman hired to baby-sit the daughter of a wealthy couple and a pilot who’s just been dumped by his hotel lounge singer girlfriend intersect. Monroe’s character, Nell, is the niece of the hotel’s longtime elevator operator (Elisha Cook, Jr.—truly a fixture of film noir), and even as he recommends her for the baby-sitting job, he seems to be treating her with kid gloves. Something is a bit amiss. The wealthy couple leaves young Bunny in Nell’s care, as they head to attend a banquet in the hotel’s ballroom. Things start out fine, with Nell reading Bunny stories, but soon it’s clear that Nell is becoming restless, and is uncomfortable interacting with the child. Eventually Nell orders Bunny to bed, and sets to trying to entertain herself in the main room of the hotel suite—mainly by going through the couple’s things. What starts off seeming just intrusive curiosity soon becomes bizarre, with Nell dressing herself in the wife’s robe and jewelry.
Meanwhile, pilot Jed Towers (the great Richard Widmark) and his girlfriend, the hotel’s singer (a young, electric Anne Bancroft), are not having the fun reunion he’d expected as he meets her after his latest trip. At the hotel bar, they share a great scene of bantering dialogue, neither really wanting to just come out and say that the relationship’s not working. Angry, he heads up to his room, which happens to be across the courtyard from the room where Nell is playing dress-up. They spy each other, a phone call is made, and suddenly he’s in her room, having a drink. And as is the case with so many great noir films, once the right two characters get into a room with each other, all hell breaks loose.
Don’t Bother to Knock is an odd film within the noir genre. It starts out seeming a bit like a relationship melodrama, and halfway through, once all of the elements are in place, evolves almost into a horror movie. Monroe is brilliant at depicting Nell’s beneath-the-surface madness coming to light, and Widmark as the weary Jed has great chemistry both with her and with Bancroft. Taradash’s script and Baker’s direction create an unsettling sense of tension that the actors delicately wind their way through. The hotel set itself is marvelous, as well. There is always something extra interesting about stories that take place in a hotel, where the secrets of the temporary guests and the silent observations of the workers who’ve seen it all come together.
For anyone with an interest in Monroe’s career, Don’t Bother to Knock is a must-see. It screens today at 4: 00 PM and 9: 30 PM, on a double bill with 1947’s They Won’t Believe Me.