The icon-establishing performances Marilyn Monroe gave in Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) are ones for the ages, touchstone works that endure because of the undeniable comic energy and desperation that sparked them from within even as the ravenous public became ever more enraptured by the surface of Monroe’s seductive image of beauty and glamour. Several generations now probably know her only from these films, or perhaps 1955’s The Seven-Year Itch, a more famous probably for the skirt-swirling pose it generated than anything in the movie itself, one of director Wilder’s sourest pictures, or her final completed film, The Misfits (1961), directed by John Huston, written by Arthur Miller and costarring Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift.
But in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) she delivers a powerful dramatic performance as Nell, a psychologically devastated, delusional, perhaps psychotic young woman apparently on the run from an abusive past who begins to unravel during a babysitting job at a New York hotel. I’d be willing to guess that anyone who thinks Marilyn Monroe can be defined as an actress by the enduring iconography and influence she inspired, or by the grim circumstances of her absorption into a Hollywood system she hated and the sad death that resulted, will be shocked by the nuanced, detailed, emotionally authentic work she does in this movie. In retrospect, and with the benefit of 60-some years’ hindsight and exposure to her most popular work, as well the Myth of Marilyn as analyzed by Norman Mailer and countless others, her Nell seems to exist also on another plane, certainly at a crossroads where, given a left turn instead of a right, pursuit of opportunities for similarly intuitive and expressive roles might have led, well, God knows where—somewhere other than where she and her legend ended up, certainly, and possibly greater acclaim for her talent than her looks. It’s a pointless game of “what if?”, or course, but she’s so marvelous in Don’t Bother to Knock that at some point the audience is almost helpless to resist playing it, imagining the roles we might be without and well as the marvels that might have been.
Nell takes her first tentative steps through the lobby doors of the McKinley Hotel just as airline pilot Jed Towers (Richard Widmark) fails in a last-ditch effort to salvage his relationship with the hotel’s sultry lounge singer, Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft, in her movie debut), who has had enough of his cynical attitude, his lack of “an understanding heart,” and his resistance to commit to something more serious (i.e. marriage) than superficial fun. Jed sulks in his room upstairs, Lyn’s voice haunting him through the hotel’s in-house radio system, and eventually notices the visage of Nell in another room across the hotel courtyard, dancing by herself. He’s caught Nell in a strange reverie— while surreptitiously trying on the clothes and jewelry of the woman whose child she’s caring for, Nell is swept away in a fantasy of someone else’s life, though at this point we have only a clue as to past abuses, neglect and emotional distress, some of which eerily echo the ones from Monroe’s actual childhood.
On the rebound and intrigued, Jed uses a hotel map to determine her room number, calls her and arranges for a visit. Once he arrives, the two strike up a predictable romantic attraction until their would-be tryst is interrupted by Nell’s young charge. Unnerved by the appearance of the young girl and the realization that Nell who she’s said she is, Jed moves from “on the make” to “on the defensive” as Nell’s delusional insecurity and possible psychotic nature begins to emerge. As he witnesses this young woman unraveling before his eyes, he refuses to take advantage of her strangely desperate willingness to sleep with him. Instead, Jed develops a surprising sympathy for Nell, the first emergence of the understanding heart longed for by Lyn. Then, as Nell seems to slip in and out of recognizing who he is, sometimes replacing Jed in her mind with the memory of a pilot boyfriend killed in World War II, an equally unexpected and urgent sense emerges of just how dangerous Nell really is, to herself, to him, and finally to the little girl who won’t stay asleep in the next room.
Monroe and Widmark are an especially compelling pairing. Perhaps because of the hard-nosed nature of the majority of his roles, Widmark is hardly ever given enough credit for the degree to which he demonstrates sensitivity to the needs and the nature of the actors with whom he frequently shares tight spaces and situations, but to not recognize that quality here, in his work with Monroe, and how it elevates their scenes together, as well as the whole of the movie, would seem particularly perverse. In other pictures he’s been a memorable fighter and even a fascinating lover, but the way he resists being both in the presence of Nell’s crumbling, self-defensive psychological fracturing is the crux of Don’t Bother to Knock’s unexpected sympathy for its seismically disturbed female protagonist.
And that sympathy would seem hollow without the map of misunderstanding and desperation provided by Monroe, in her widened eyes, disbelieving of the hints of reality and overwhelming self-defensive fantasies playing out behind them; in her carriage, at once unsure, unstable and preemptively defeated; and in the tender music of her voice, which masks the depths of her delusion, flattening out, becoming deeper, colder as she assumes power over the girl, the shadows of an awful, victimized past threatening to manifest themselves again, this time with Nell dispensing the pain. If she’d never acted again after Don’t Bother to Knock, if our memories of her weren’t so awash in images of “Marilyn,” I think we’d probably remember Monroe’s Nell with much more respect and admiration. Instead, after 60-some years of impersonation and appropriation of her image for every possible commercial purpose, this remarkable piece of acting has survived as a mere footnote, an echoing indicator of what Marilyn Monroe might have done on screen if she’d been able to respond with more resilience to the soul-grinding Hollywood machinery, if she’d been left alone simply to act.
Don’t Bother to Knock is a must-see for Monroe, and for Widmark, but this crisp, tight, visually inventive picture, which clocks in at a trim 76 minutes, is filled with notable and familiar talent on both sides of the camera. As mentioned earlier, it marks the screen debut of Anne Bancroft and serves as a reminder of her astonishing beauty and aplomb, which she possessed from the start and refined over the course of a 50-year career in movies and TV. But a close eye will reveal plenty of familiar faces roaming about the halls and the lobby of the fictional McKinley Hotel.
Noir vet Elisha Cook Jr. appears as Nell’s doting but impatient Uncle Eddie, an elevator operator who gets Nell, who’s only just arrived in town from Oregon, the babysitting job and who hopes (vainly, as it turns out) to turn her child care into a profitable side business. And the great character actor Willis Bouchey plays the bartender who lends a sympathetic ear to tales of Lyn’s romantic woes. Film fans will recognize Bouchey from pictures like Pickup on South Street (1953), The Big Heat (1953), The Violent Men (1954), Them!(1954), Hell on Frisco Bay (1955), No Name on the Bullet (1959), The Horse Soldiers (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Panic in Year Zero! (1962), alongside seemingly countless appearances on television throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. Don’t Bother to Knock was only this prolific actor’s second credited screen appearance.
Veteran stage and screen performer Verna Felton plays the crotchety and meddling Mrs. Ballew, whose incessant nosiness put her and her husband in the middle of the tense situation surrounding Nell and Jed. Felton had performed on stage since the age of six and in her adult years often played bombastic, mean-spirited matrons, of which Mrs. Ballew was a prime example. But she also did a lot of voice work in Disney classics such as 1950’s Cinderella (she was the Fairy Godmother), 1951’s Alice in Wonderland (the Queen of Hearts) and 1955’s Lady and the Tramp. Her film career was somewhat oddly bookended by her vocal performances as matronly elephants, early on as Dumbo’s mother and then, in her final screen work, as the voice of another mama pachyderm in The Jungle Book (1967). Felton starts off Don’t Bother to Knock by railing against the deficiencies of the McKinley Hotel to a very patient, very familiar looking hotel clerk played by one Olan Soule, veteran of over 250 film and TV appearances, usually as, yes, a desk clerk, reporter, judge, detective or some other low-level bureaucrat. If you don’t recognize Soule from such movies and TV shows as Dragnet, This Island Earth (1955), -30- (1959), North by Northwest (1959), Wanted: Dead or Alive, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Andy Griffith Show, Batman, Petticoat Junction, My Three Sons and The Towering Inferno (1974), among many others, you probably haven’t been playing close enough attention.
The father of the young girl left to Nell’s care is Jim Backus, known as the ineffectual father tearing James Dean apart in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), but of course even more for his two defining roles, the snooty, moneyed but ultimately good-hearted Thurston Howell III, one of the castaways on Gilligan’s Island, and the voice of the indefatigably crotchety, visually impaired Mr. Magoo. Veteran character actress Lurene Tuttle appeared briefly in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) and Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948) before taking on the role of the mother who discovers firsthand the nightmare through which Nell has put her child. Tuttle appeared prolifically on television from the ‘50s into the ‘80s, and she’s known to film buffs for appearances in Niagara (1953; again with Monroe), The Fortune Cookie (1966) and director Lynne Littman’s 1983 nuclear holocaust drama Testament. But she will be recognizable to most for her appearance as the doting wife to John McIntyre’s Sheriff Chambers in Psycho-- “I helped Norman pick out the dress (his mother) was buried in—periwinkle blue.”
The talent behind the scenes on Don’t Bother to Knock turned out to be equally impressive. Screenwriter Daniel Taradash already had Golden Boy (1939), Knock on Any Door (1949) and Rancho Notorious (1952) to his credit when he adapted, with lean intelligence, mystery writer Charlotte Armstrong’s novel for this 20th Century Fox production. Taradash’s very next project, From Here to Eternity (1953), would win him the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, one of eight Oscars that classic picture would take home. He would go on to write the screenplays for Picnic (1955), Bell, Book and Candle (1958), Morituri (1965) and Hawaii (1966).
Director of Photography Lucien Ballard’s first jobs were on Morocco (1930) and The Devil is a Woman (1935) for Josef von Sternberg in the early ‘30s. Ballard worked his way through a boatload of shorts and B-movies, often uncredited, until his first job as co-director of photography (with J. Peverell Marley) on Jean Renoir’s Swamp Water in 1941. He soon embarked on a full-fledged career as a lead cinematographer, shooting films like Orchestra Wives (1942), John Brahm’s shoestring spectacular The Undying Monster (1942) and Robert Wise’s The House on Telegraph Hill (1951), all before providing the creative photographic realization of Don’t Bother to Knock, one of 30 pictures he lensed in the decade of the ’50s alone. (Others included Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 The Killing and Budd Boetticher’s Buchanan Rides Alone in 1958.) But Ballard is best and most reverently remembered for his collaborations with Sam Peckinpah, realizing the brutal beauty of the director’s vision in such pictures as Ride the High Country (1962), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), The Getaway (1972), Junior Bonner (1972) and, perhaps most memorably, The Wild Bunch (1969).
By the time Roy Ward Baker made Don’t Bother to Knock, he’d already kicked off his directing career with a stunning debut—The October Man (1947) starring John Mills as a man who suffers a head injury in a bus crash and becomes chief suspect in a brutal murder case. That triumph was followed by dramatic efforts such as Operation Disaster (1950), Highly Dangerous (1950) and The House in the Square (1951; aka I’ll Never Forget You). Don’t Bother to Knock was the first feature he directed in America and demonstrated anew the skill and virtuosity Baker had already displayed in The October Man, and it was quickly followed by the delirious brilliant 3D western Inferno (1953), starring Robert Ryan, Rhonda Fleming and William Lundigan. In 1958 he directed not the first, but certainly the best-regarded account of the Titanic disaster, A Night to Remember, which some fans of James Cameron’s Oscar-winning epic are willing to admit outdoes even that film for sheer effectiveness. Baker soon returned to Britain where he directed several episodes of UK TV shows such as The Baron, The Saint and The Avengers. But he may be most well-known to genre fans for the elegance, tension and purple passion he delivered as the director of such Hammer studio classics as Quatermass and the Pit (1967; known in the U.S. as Five Million Years to Earth), Moon Zero Two (1969), Scars of Dracula (1970), The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) and, most memorably, The Vampire Lovers (1970). Baker was also the go-to director for several horror anthology films for Amicus Films in the ‘70s, including Asylum (1972), Vault of Horror (1973) and And Now the Screaming Starts (1973).
If you’ve already seen Don’t Bother to Knock, by this point you need no convincing. Nevertheless, I invite you to read writer Sheila O'Malley's assessment of the film and Monroe’s performance. Sheila’s essay, written in 2010, is a brilliant, perceptive, sympathetic piece of analysis that far outshines any attempt I’ve made here to dig into what Monroe does in this relatively neglected entry in her filmography, and it’s a worthy appreciation of the movie itself. And if you haven’t seen Don’t Bother to Knock yet, bookmark Sheila’s piece and save it until you have— the movie is currently streaming in high-definition on Netflix and is available on DVD and streaming through Amazon. I highly recommend you seek this treasure out soon and avail yourself of the surprises it holds, not the least of which is the evidence of Marilyn Monroe’s emotionally resonant acting talent, her very own understanding heart. In the face of decades of cultural assumption to the contrary, that amounts in my mind to a major cinematic rediscovery, as well as an opportunity to contemplate with some solemnity the missed opportunities down a road not traveled.