BR: Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)

September 21, 2018 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  March 20, 2018

Genre:  Suspense / Film Noir

Synopsis: After meeting a woman in a hotel room, a jilted pilot soon realizes the sexy babysitter is deeply disturbed.

Special Features:  Isolated Mono Music Track /  2 episodes of A&E’s Biography: “Marilyn Monroe – The Mortal Goddess” (44:05) + “Richard Widmark: Strength of Characters” (44:24) / Theatrical Trailers / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.

 


 

Review:

Between 1950-1952, Marilyn Monroe appeared in a series of feature films at Fox that ranged from short B-films (As Young as You Feel, Love Nest, Let’s Make It Legal, We’re Not Married!) to bit and medium-level supporting parts in more important works, with the latter featuring directors Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve), Fritz Lang (Clash by Night), and Howard Hawks (Monkey Business), but it was Henry Hathaway’s Niagara (1953) in full blazing colour that transformed the up & coming starlet into a major name, and had Fox preferring Monroe appear in projects that exploited her inimitable sex appeal.

Before her career exploded, Monroe appeared in a very low-key suspense drama, playing a deeply disturbed woman whose uncle foolishly thinks is cured and perfectly suited for babysitting the daughter of a wealthy couple.

Don’t Bother to Knock marks an important juncture in several of the film’s talent: star Richard Widmark had slowly moved up from playing granny-tossing creeps (Kiss of Death) and slimeballs (Night and the City) to more officious characters (Panic in the Streets, Halls of Montezuma); co-star Anne Bancroft made her feature film debut after steady work in live TV; noted screenwriter Daniel Taradash had written Golden Boy (1939) and Rancho Notorious (1952); and director Roy Ward Baker had been freshly imported by Fox from Britain to helm a subsequent series of dramas and thrillers, perhaps because he knew how to extract solid performances from a cast and make the results fit seamlessly within beautifully shot, edited, and scored films.

A hack might have given Monroe minimal direction and done a by-the-numbers job for what’s essentially a B-grade suspenser, but one feels Baker spent time (or was impeccably patient) in helping the starlet find the character of Nell and mine the deep trauma that causes her to defy, abuse, and deceive several characters. Based on Charlotte Armstrong’s novel Mischief, this isn’t a tale of a mad babysitter but a fragile woman traumatized by the disappearance and death of her one true love, a fighter pilot shot down during WWII. After spending time in a sanitarium, she’s released, perhaps hastily, into the custody of family.

When her uncle Eddie (Elisha Cook Jr.) hears a couple needs  a quick sitter for daughter Bunny (Donna Corcoran), he presses Nell as the perfect choice, thinking women + kids are natural pairs. Whether or not it’s suggested in Armstrong’s novel, the film certainly implies the spark of Nell’s breakdown stems from Eddie’s misplaced good intentions, and the flood of delusions begin when a friendly / horny stranger on the rebound (Widmark) worms his way into her apartment and plies her with booze.

Taradash’s dialogue and story structure is rock solid, and Nell’s intro scenes has her almost whisked to the apartment of the Peter (Jim Backus) and Ruth Jones (Psycho‘s Lurene Tuttle) like an escaped prisoner in civilian disguise. Built up by Eddie’s assurances and armed with a book and a smile, she’s accepted as a responsible sitter, and left alone with Bunny while the parents are a few floors below attending a writer’s awards ceremony.

Running parallel to Nell are scenes with sleepy, emotionally numb Lyn (Bancroft), whose late night shift as the club’s lounge siren is interrupted by now ex-beau Jed (Widmark), a former pilot and hothead insisting on being given a concrete reason for being dumped. Their back & forth bickering sends Jed to his room, and as he boozes up, he spots pretty Nell across the atrium, trying out Ruth’s personal jewels and attire. In no time is he at her door with whiskey, and the story focuses on the stressors that push Nell to endangering a child.

Nell’s mean streak towards Bunny is fairly restrained, but it’s Monroe’s emotional tone and glassy eyes that infer she’s losing it. Each questioning visitor forces Nell to double-back and rework her lies until her ability to fend off reality is torn beyond repair, leading to a beautifully crafted montage where the biggest threats converge towards the apartment.

SPOILER ALERT

 

 

Jed and Nell are undoubtedly the most interesting characters – Widmark and Monroe bring edginess and dark hunger to roles, bleeding through the confines of Production Code rules – but poor Lyn is a wan archetype of the cliched good girl: she sings cheesy pop tunes that are weirdly piped live into each room’s radio set, and Jed’s genuine compassion towards a cornered Nell makes Lyn realize he really is a good guy, hence a protracted happy ending for the pair.

It’s a silly wrap-up that feels studio-imposed: a more realistic and noirish ending would’ve kept Lyn and Jed separated because of mistrust and misconceptions, and Nell taken away to be lost in a wrecked health system. Basically, almost everyone’s miserable & broken, and one is quite doomed.

Among the fine character actors are baritone-voiced Willis Bouchey as a cautious bartender, and Jeanne Cagney as the pushy lounge photographer who pushes guests into buying terrible stills grafted onto useless stationary. Less effective is the character of hotel detective Pat (Michael Ross), who assembles staff for the hunt that leads them to corner Nell in the main lobby.

 

 

END OF SPOILERS

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a clean transfer, and extras include a trailer, an isolated music track featuring score cuts by uncredited Lionel Newman, plus songs without the vocal tracks that feature much brighter instrumental details. The pair of A&E Biography episodes feature a 1991 piece on Monroe that’s genial, uncontroversial, and celebratory of her screen legend, as told through Fox film clips and assorted interviews; and the 2000 Widmark piece was previously archived on Fox’s 2007 DVD and TT’s 2017 BR of Sam Fuller’s Hell in High Water (1954).

Julie Kirgo’s essay gives a brisk overview of the production, and in spite of being an early co-starring role for Monroe, the production was nevertheless affected by her quirks which would deepen in later years. Widmark is quoted as saying no one was impressed with her behaviour nor performance, but when they watched the rushes they saw the unique amalgam of sadness and madness in Monroe’s Nell, perhaps enhanced by the actress drawing from her own mother’s extended bouts with mental illness.

Although a taut suspense film built around an affecting, deeply troubled young woman, Fox’ p.r. campaign was a real mishmash: early posters tout their new starlet, while later art redesigns Nell from babysitter to a red gowned temptress, using what feels like an adaptation of the key art from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

 

SHE NEVER WEARS THIS DRESS or POSES LIKE THIS.

 

SHE’S ALSO A BRUNETTE.

 

This is closer to the nightgown worn in the film… but THERE IS NO GIRL-GIRL HAIR-PULLING FIGHT.

 

Presumably the cheesecake shots of “the most exciting personality in America today!” were pure publicity stills before costumes were finalized.

 

THIS IS MORE ACCURATE.

 

THIS IS NONSENSE. There is NO SUCH MOMENT when Monroe does an ‘I’m so exhausted from these shenanigans!’ pose and Widmark does a “Goodness gracious me!” frieze.

 

Top image: NONSENSE. Bottom image: SPOILER.

 

As was the fashion during the 1980s and 1990s, several classic noir films were remade for TV. Just as Fox remade Leave Her to Heaven (1945) as Too Good to Be True (1988), Armstrong’s novel was remade as The Sitter (1991), starring Kim Myers, Brett Cullen, and Susan Barnes.

Whereas Monroe and Widmark quickly became major stars at Fox, Bancroft went through a few more B-grade productions, such as the 3D thriller Gorilla at Large (1954) – before given roles in Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), The Raid (1954), and Nightfall (1956). After taking control of her career and focusing on stage work in later years, she would ultimately win the Oscar for The Miracle Worker (1962).

Director Baker would make his own 3D film for the studio – the underrated Inferno (1953) – but his most critically acclaimed work may still be the definitive Titanic drama A Night to Remember (1958). His association with Hammer yielded variable fare, such as the ineptly conceived ‘sci-fi western’ Moon Zero Two (1969), the bosomy The Vampire Lovers (1970), and the kung-fu vampire hybrid The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974).

 

 

© 2018 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack AlbumComposer Filmography
 
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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