DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK (1952)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 16 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Roy Ward Baker

Written by: Daniel Taradash

(based on the novel MISCHIEF by Charlotte Armstrong)

Starring: Richard Widmark, Marilyn Monroe, Anne Bancroft, Donna Corcoran, Jeanne Cagney, Lurene Tuttle & Elisha Cook Jr.

Marilyn Monroe was a sex symbol of her time and has one of the most recognizable faces from the 1950s. Monroe mostly starred in light-hearted comedic fare, but she made a few attempts at more dramatic material. DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK is an entertaining (though simple to a fault) thriller that sees Marilyn playing a mentally unhinged character. KNOCK serves as a suspenseful subversion on its own merits, even if the film never strikes the emotional cord that it seems to be aiming for.

During the course of a single night at New York’s McKinley Hotel, down-on-his-luck pilot Jed Towers (Richard Widmark) has been dumped by his long-distance lounge singer girlfriend Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft). Drunkenly, Jed looks to relieve his lonely heart and spots sexy babysitter Nell Forbes (Marilyn Monroe) in another room. The two begin what seems to be a romantic evening, but Nell reveals a strange side and disturbing secrets make their way to the surface. All the while, the young babysat child Bunny (Donna Corcoran) is stuck in the middle of this whole mess.

DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK is very much a film of its time. It has strongly conservative sensibilities when it comes to its darker elements and hints of possible violence. The film’s running time is short and easily digestible, which was fairly common amongst disposable 1950s entertainment. There are clearly attempts at deeper themes in this film, but these are frequently undercut by a focus on modesty and class. There’s an inherent charm to the old-fashioned approach, but it’s a detriment to this film’s plot.

DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK seemingly makes up for narrative shortcomings by milking the hotel setting for everything that it’s worth. The plot gets a lot of mileage out of brief scenes set within the lounge, the lobby, the hallways, elevator, and two separate rooms. These fun bits are mostly inconsequential to the main events, but serve as charming additions to the film nonetheless. Two big subplot standouts are a bickering old couple who stick their noses into other people’s business and a woman who constantly has trouble with her disobedient dog. These are further aided by a clear sense of humor (in spots) and snazzy dialogue that could only come out of the 1950s.

As Jed, Richard Widmark plays a flawed protagonist. This character clearly has issues, but hides a soft emotional core beneath his tough outer attitude. Widmark makes some of the cheesiest lines work flawlessly in his delivery. In one of the most chuckle-worthy bits, Widmark remarks that Monroe’s Nell is like “silk on one side and sandpaper on the other.” Another performer who makes corny dialogue work is Willis Bouchey as Joe the Bartender (easily my favorite character in the entire film). Though he has (maybe) five minutes, Bouchey’s Joe makes one hell of an impression and just may be one of the coolest bartenders in cinema history. Elisha Cook Jr. also fares well as nervous elevator operator Eddie.

Of the film’s four main actresses, the showstopper is easily Marilyn Monroe as Nell. Monroe plays crazy in a surprisingly realistic fashion. Apparently, she was channeling actual experiences she’d had with her unstable mother and her own real-life issues in this performance (her eyes frequently glaze over and stare into nothingness). Monroe’s Nell starts off shy and progressively gets creepy as her sinister tendencies emerge. The film also does a good job of making Nell into a sympathetic psycho…as well as a character who makes the viewer nervous. Anne Bancroft is good in her side role, providing her own singing as the lounge love-interest. Meanwhile, Lurene Tuttle only seems to serve as a walking plot device and Donna Corcoran is the one-dimensional child-in-distress.

DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK undermines its more serious aspects by writing them off in overly simplistic ways. The manner in which a hotel room confrontation between Nell and Ruth (Bunny’s mother) resolves itself is laughable in its implausibility (capped off with one of the worst lines of dialogue in the entire film). The film effectively makes up for this in a final scene that wraps things up in a better-than-expected, surprisingly mature fashion. Though it’s noticeably dated (at points, in a bad way), DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK remains an entertaining diversion that showcases a darker side to the usually cheery Marilyn Monroe. If that sounds like something you’d enjoy watching, check out this short and simple thriller.

Grade: B

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