Don’t Bother to Knock

November 18, 2009 at 4:25 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , , )

     Don’t Bother to Knock is a lesser known noir from 1952, though it does have some major names attached to it. The leading roles go to noir veteran Richard Widmark as Jed Towers (great name); Anne Bancroft in her first film role is Jed’s off again, on again lady Lyn Lesley and the incredible looking Marilyn Monroe plays the mixed up Nell Forbes. In addition, to the stars, the supporting case also has some noir heavyweights, including Elisha Cook Jr. (is there a film noir that doesn’t have him somewhere in the cast) as well as Jim Backus and Willis Bouchey. Also included in the cast is the sister of James Cagney, Jeanne Cagney.

     The film is directed by Roy Ward Baker, who is not a big name in film noir, though he did direct Linda Darnell in Night Without Sleep and Robert Ryan in Inferno. The film is based upon a novel by Charlotte Armstrong and the screenplay is by Daniel Taradash. Taradash has some quality screenwriting credits, most notably From Here to Eternity for which he won an Oscar. He is also credited as one of several writers on the Bogart noir Knock on Any Door.

     Two things this film is probably most noted for: one is its attempt to highlight Marilyn Monroe as a serious actress and not just a pretty face, and two is just how concretely it illustrates mental disturbance as an illness. For the time, it was a really disturbing picture of mental illness and its self-destructiveness. Marilyn simply cannot help but ruin everything she touches.    

     The plot centers around an elevator man in a swanky hotel named Eddie (Elisha Cook Jr.) who has gotten a relative of his, Nell a job as a baby sitter. Nell is supposed to watch this little girl while her parents attend a banquet where the father (Jim Backus) gets some sort of award.

     As this is all getting set up, you see Jed Towers in the hotel drinking away his sorrows due to, of course, woman troubles. The woman is the hotel lounge singer Lyn Lesley. There is a small hint of trouble with Nell in the beginning. You can tell early on that Nell has had, at the very least, some bad luck and that Eddie is a father figure of a sort, trying to get her back on her feet.  

     While Nell is babysitting, she begins trying on the clothes and jewelry of the little girl’s mom. Nell catches the attention of Jed through the window as she twirls around in the dress and jewelry. Jed gives her a call in an attempt to get over Lyn. Nell agrees to allow Jed to come to her room with a bottle while the little girl sleeps. Jed doesn’t know that Nell is just babysitting.  

     It doesn’t take long for Jed to realize that Nell is not quite playing with a full deck and he soon tries to get himself out of the situation. Initially, he does distance himself from Nell and tries again to patch things up with Lyn, but it is a film noir and you know that he is going to get sucked into the mix in ways that are out of his control. This is when Nell really begins to crack-up.   

Noir Elements 

     Some of the more notable features of film noir are missing from this film. It is not a hard-boiled crime flick. It doesn’t have any stunning cinematography, and the chiaroscuro lighting is done with a very light hand. However, the film is most certainly a noir.

     The focus is on Marilyn and her disturbed character Nell. What really puts Don’t Bother to Knock in the category of a film noir is its depiction of cynicism, fragmentation and how deeply it delves into an unhinged world. Of the 4 main characters, there is not one who seems to be at peace with themselves or the world they live in. Also, for most of the movie, Nell, Jed and Lyn all seem to be riding along on the wings of fate. They don’t seem to have any control over what is going on with their lives. This lack of control of one’s own life is a staple of film noir.

     Don’t Bother to Knock was certainly ahead of its time when it comes to showing realistic depictions of someone on the brink of either suicide or a total meltdown. The scars on Nell’s wrists are certainly something that would have been at least a little shocking to audiences in 1952.

     Another thing film noir is noted for is snappy dialogue and there is plenty of that. Most of it coming from Widmark’s character or Joe the bartender played by Willis Bouchey. When asked by Widmark if he and his wife fight much, Joe quickly replies “Some of the time she sleeps.”


Recommendation (Spoilers) 

     Though I would not call this film a must see, it is a film that I recommend, mostly because of the excellent work of the cast.

     Marilyn is amazing to look at and she pulls off the role. Despite her voice and her naïve appeal, she still shows the evil that is within her. She is capable of anything and if it were not for the fact that it would not have made it past the censors in 1952; I would have believed that her character would have pushed that little girl right out the window. 

     The cinematography is not the best and the direction is average, but the cast is excellent and they all pull off their roles admirably. If it were not for Marilyn, you would come out of this film talking about the beauty of Anne Bancroft. If you are wowed by Marilyn and/or Richard Widmark then this certainly is must see. They are both great in this film. Widmark is not quite as good as he is in Kiss of Death or Pick up on South Street, but it is certainly a worthy effort from him.   



1 Comment

  1. marina72 said,

    Thanks for this great review and I agree, an interesting movie.

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