Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Don't Bother to Knock - 1952

"Don't Bother to Knock" - 1952
Dir. by Roy Ward Baker - 1 hr. 16 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

You may be pondering seeing "The Sitter," as you may enjoy Jonah Hill, and because holiday movie options are ridiculously slim this year.  I myself am looking forward to seeing "The Sitter" for those very reasons.  But if you like the premise of a horribly dangerous babysitter, and don't want to see it played for laughs, and don't mind watching Marilyn Monroe for seventy-five minutes, may I suggest instead that you watch "Don't Bother to Knock?"

The entire movie is set within the confines of a luxury hotel, McKinley Hotel in New York.  Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft) is a lounge singer, sullen because she's just broken it off with a pilot named Jed Towers (Richard Widmark).  She did this via letter, and thus isn't sure whether it was a clean break or if Jed will show up to figure things out (he shows up).  Lyn and Jed discuss the state of things during a set break, and it doesn't go well.  Jed is a cynic, and Lyn doesn't like the idea of living the rest of her life cold and indifferent to the people around her.  Elsewhere in the hotel, a couple are guests, and need a babysitter to watch their daughter while the parents attend a ball where the father is to be given an award.  The elevator operator (Elisha Cook, Jr.) offers his niece for the job.  And this is where things go insane.

With the little girl asleep, Nell (Marilyn Monroe) starts rummaging through the parents' stuff, and decides to try on some finery.  She gets busted by her uncle when he stops by to check on her, and assures him that she'll take off the clothes and jewelry, but never seems to get around to it.  Meanwhile, Jed is sulking in his room on the eighth floor after having his heart handed back to him, when he notices Nell across the courtyard and through the windows.  He consults a floor plan, and rings up the room.  He invites himself over, unaware of the child sleeping in the adjacent room, which Nell accepts.  When Jed gets to the room with a bottle of rye, he splays himself out on a chair and goes about flirting with Nell.

But it becomes quickly apparent that Nell is off her rocker (her boyfriend had died in the war, and she never fully recovered).  She's desperate for the attention of Jed, and does whatever she can think of to keep him in the room.  It would be spoiling the movie to say what all Nell does, but it starts with threatening the little girl when she won't stay asleep, and progresses from there.  Jed is suitably freaked out by the situation, and ends up regretting his situation with Lyn.

At this point in Marilyn Monroe's career, she hadn't hit her stride of classic films, but it wasn't far off.  It's unmistakably her; even though she's largely unglamorous, there's no mistaking that voice of hers.  And surprisingly, she's very effective in her role.  Her breathy, little-girl voice seems almost a perversion at times in "Don't Bother to Knock;" what seems playful and knowing in other roles comes off as damaged and very fragile here.  And more to the point, you believe that she's capable of doing harm from her delusional point of view.  So when the final blow-out occurs, not only do you worry about the little girl's safety, but each of the characters have been established as to why they have an interest in the situation.

I'll make no secret of it; part of what I enjoy about seeing old films is the anachronistic aspects of them.  The things that would seem out of place in a current film are enjoyable when you view them in their own context. It's a visual treat to see a world that's alien - different phones, people smoking wherever they please, the way people dressed in another era.  Ordinary things are just different enough that you still know what they are, but little things that don't necessarily have great importance are fun to watch just for the novelty factor.  But that wouldn't mean much if the story didn't work, which it does.  And the story doesn't really sugar-coat things: Jed tries to pick up a girl to get over Lyn (a cad move at best) and Nell is a lunatic who has tried to kill herself (and has the scars on her wrists to prove it).  Given the short running time, the plot plays out with brutal efficiency, and I found it very easy to get swept up by the story.

While "Don't Bother to Knock" isn't one of Monroe's classic best films, it holds up.  It's a quick, solid film, and if you've already explored her more well-known movies, this is a good choice from her second-tier.

3.5 / 5 - Streaming

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