Don`t Bother to Knock (1952)

 

Year: 1952

Director: Roy Ward Baker

Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Richard Widmark, Anne Bancroft, Elisha Cook Jr.

Much like The Set-Up, a movie from 3 years earlier, Don’t Bother to Knock attempts to tell a story in real time or at least near real time.  This is a stylistic choice that was rarely made in films of this era, in fact it has rarely been attempted in the entire history of film.  A few examples come to mind, such as the television show 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland, and the 2003 film Phone Booth as well as 88 minutes with Al Pacino.  Rope (1948), which was Directed by Alfred Hitchcock also employed an attempt at this near real time approach.

Much like Rope, Don’t Bother to Knock begins to feel somewhat claustrophobic.  The fact that it all takes place in the same location, a hotel in New York, also adds to the claustrophobic feel.  These choices serve the story, for Marilyn Monroe’s character is not entirely stable, in fact, she has spent some time in a mental institution.  Those three years in the institution supposedly did a lot of good for her, but the one night she spends in this hotel might do just as much bad for her.  It is as if her isolation in one location unravels the positive results of her isolation in another location.

Besides the ambitious efforts to tell this story in real time and in one location, the other most impressive aspect of this film has got to be Marilyn Monroe and her performance.  Here we see her in the first few years of her film career, with a whole decade of film roles ahead of her, and already we can see that she is more than just a pretty face and a set of seductive curves, but an impressive actor as well.  She is an actress who much like other early well known method actors, such as Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger, used method acting to great success.  Don’t Bother to Knock is arguably one of her greatest successes as an actress, and ironically came fairly early in her career, much before a lot of criticism arose.  After watching a movie like Don’t Bother to Knock, it is ironic that her talents were often questioned by critics of the time and the present.  Her performance is clearly the best thing this film has going for it.

The story is about a young woman, who is haunted by a melancholy and apparently sadly repressive past.  Part of what is engaging about this film is trying to not only figure out exactly what in her past might have caused her mental and emotional damage, but also whether or not the supposed clues to that past point in the direction one might assume when watching the film.  Viewing Don’t Bother to Knock certainly leads one to want to read the source material, a novel by Charlotte Armstrong entitled Mischief.  A movie such as Don’t Bother to Knock must have pushed the censorship guidelines of the time for film.  Surely, the source material must contain some juicy details that would fill out the story.  That, coincidentally, is another connection to the movie Rope, which makes no mention of homosexuality, but is often talked about now as a movie that discusses the subject, which was certainly taboo at the time.

What exactly happened to Marilyn Monroe’s Nell Forbes?  What demons are in her past?  What exactly is the nature of her relationship with her uncle (played quite well by talented actor Elisha Cook Jr., who interestingly had no children, but did spend some time raising a niece)?  What will happen next to Nell?  These questions are basically unanswered, leaving much to the imagination of the viewer, serving as sort of a psychological analysis of the viewer, and an exercise in dissecting dialogue and hunting for subtext.

Despite all the unanswered questions, one thing is clear however, Marilyn Monroe could definitely act.

 

085. The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936)
Following up The 39 Steps, considered today to be his first “major” film, Hitchcock made yet another “traveling” thriller. Hitch had a big thing for trains. From The Lady Vanishes to North by Northwest to Strangers on the Train, it was one of his favorite settings for mischief and mayhem. In this film, nearly all of the story unfolds on a train. The film is also notable for having a female leading the way in the plot. Margaret Lockwood is charming, lovely, and all around watchable. Her eagerness to uncover the truth is totally believable, and at her side is the equally charming and sometimes endearingly irritating Michael Redgrave. The pair try to discover what’s happened to a woman who Lockwood swears she talked to on the train who seems to have vanished without a trace. The plot has been copied in various ways many times since (most notable in Flightplan, perhaps most successfully in Bunny Lake Is Missing.) Knowing someone who has vanished, and then being led to believe that maybe they didn’t exist at all, is the stuff psychological thrillers are made of.

084. Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931)
The Pre-Code era was the golden age of the mobster film. Not only were filmmakers much more free to make their films violent and their villains sympathetic, but America was also in the midst of the Depression, and people were looking to unconventional movie characters to idolize. So filmmakers were able to make their gangsters into not just sympathetic hoodlums, but even into tragic anti-heroes. Perhaps the most sympathetic of the bunch is Edward G. Robinson’s Rico. In 1931, his rise to power could be seen as almost inspiration, despite the illegal and quite violent way he did it, and despite the fact that the character is something of a monster, loyalty and friendship aside. There’s also some of that wonderful pre-code homosexual subtext, and an amazing final line from Robinson.

083. Wuthering Heights (William Wyler, 1939)
1939 is considered Hollywood’s Golden Year because so many amazing movies were released, but the only two that really get any attention these days are Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, while other films, like Wuthering Heights, which I think is better than both of those other movies, are hardly ever discussed. Wuthering Heights is kind of the grand-daddy of messed up love stories. It’s the story of how a strong and passionate love can sometimes destroy two people rather than save them. It’s dark, it’s not happy, but it’s has its own dark beauty, and this film captures it so well. It’s true, it only tells part of the story, but if you’re going to make a feature length film version of the story, I’d personally rather have a part of the story cut out to allow what’s there to fully develop as it should, rather than trying to cram it all into a two hour running time and rushing things, like that mess that was the 1992 version.

082. Possessed (Clarence Brown, 1931)
Kept woman films were popular in the romantic melodrama genre during the pre-code era. Naturally the idea of a kept woman was something that would have to be done away with completely when enforcement of the code began. But while it was allowed, the subgenre allowed for some very interesting romances. One of them paired Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, one of the all time great pairings (on and off screen) as the kept woman and the man who keeps her. A lot of these stories are about the woman falling in love with a poor man, a man who isn’t the one keeping her. This one is different because it’s about the love between the two characters. It’s not about them falling in love, it’s about their love changing and their acceptance of it.

081. Employees’ Entrance (Roy Del Ruth, 1933)
One of the sexiest movies of the decade, Employees’ Entrance is about all manner of workplace indiscretions, and it crams just about all the pre-code you can get into one movie. Loretta Young is charming as always as the sweet girl who sleeps her way into a job at a department store by way of sleazy yet oh-so-sexy Warren William, but then falls in love with good guy Wallace Ford.  Watching it now with 70+ years of history, it’s an interesting look back at the way life was back in the 1930s. But even without the historical context, it works remarkably well as a romantic drama, with an entertaining supporting ensemble. But the show belongs to the often forgotten but always awesome Warren William. He completely owns this movie in every way. It takes quite an actor to play such a horrible character with so much commitment.

By Katie Richardson

I noticed in the Hitchcock Consensus thread on RT that there were a number of people giving Mr. and Mrs. Smith a very low rating, even calling it his worst film (though I was surprised and pleased to see that there were several people giving it good ratings). Mr. and Mrs. Smith is certainly not Hitch’s worst movie. In fact, it’s one of his best. So I thought I should write this up so everyone could see why.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith
stand alongside films like The Philadelphia Story and The Awful Truth in a subgenre of romantic comedy called the “remarriage comedy”. In traditional comedy, the story generally begins with the “meet cute”, where the boy-meets-girl set up is established, and the characters clash in order to give the growing romance conflict. In most remarriage comedies, the leading couple has not only already met, but already have an established relationship. The conflict and structure isn’t to get two characters together, but rather to get them back together. It was a structure that became quite popular after enforcement of the production code to cleverly insert the issue of adultery into comedic storylines. A married couple splits and divorce, and then one (or both) parties have a flirtation/relationship with other people. Since the couple is divorced, it cannot technically be considered adultery.

In Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Hitchcock plays with the conventions of the genre, as he usually did. Instead of having a couple divorce, we discover that they were never technically married in the first place. Hitchcock cleverly combines the conventions of traditional comedy and remarriage comedy. The story structure is set up as a remarriage comedy. The Smiths are a couple that already have a well established relationship. But since they were never actually married, the storyline is subtly heading in the more traditional direction of a marriage rather than a remarriage. Structurally, it’s kind of like a reverse of The Lady Eve, in which we get a boy-meets-girl opening, only to lead to a form of remarriage comedy.

By doing this, Hitchcock slyly gets to play around with the production code. He’s basically using the guise of remarriage comedy to trick the Code. Without the pair being legally married, they’ve actually been involved in a sexual relationship without marriage for several years. Throughout pretty much the whole movie, Hitchcock is winking at the audience, proving he’s much smarter and more clever than Joseph Breen and the censors.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith may be Hitchcock’s only straight-up comedy, but his touches are definitely there – not just visually, but psychologically. One of the things that separates this film from other in this genre is the high amount of pain and suffering the couple puts each other through, both physically and emotionally. There is a large amount of deliberate deceit and actions taken specifically to hurt the feelings of the other. At first glance, these things might seem cold hearted and distancing. But both characters delight in both giving this pain and receiving this pain. It is, after all, what brings them back together in the end. It’s an integral part of the relationship, it helps them to thrive. The film both begins and ends with the conclusion to a huge argument. And that gives the feeling that “The End” isn’t really the end and that “Happily Ever After” isn’t really happily ever after. Their relationship will remain largely the same and just keep going. This is because we aren’t necessarily being show a relationship that needs to change. We’re simply seeing a thriving relationship that’s had a misstep. So many of Hitch’s film relationships are about the incompatibility of me and women, even if they end up together forever. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is no different. In fact, it may highlight that theme better than any of his other films.

While the film is one of Hitch’s best romance stories, it is perhaps one of his least “romantic” films (intentionally so). In other films, like Notorious and Vertigo, the passion in the relationships come from sexuality and romance. In Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the idea that romantic passion is needed to maintain a relationship is thrown out the window. The couple is generally unsentimental, and when they try to be, like when they attempt to go to the restaurant from early in their relationship, the attempt fails. Their relationship and love is held together by structure, rules, and the passion that comes from their antagonism, not their romantic ideas or sexual desire for each other. Rather, their sexual relationship generally arises from their conflicts and antagonism, and though fighting is foreplay.

Hitchcock’s heroes and heroines often inflict more pain onto themselves than the outside forces do. (Alicia Huberman’s alcoholism, Maxim DeWinter’s inability to let go of what happened to Rebecca, Scottie Furguson’s guilt manifesting itself in vertigo). Hitchcock parodies this idea himself. Throughout the film, the characters do tend to hurt themselves (and each other) with their own actions. But Hitch has a great scene which physically embodies this idea. In order to get himself out of an embarrassing date, Robert Montgomery attempts to give himself a bloody nose by beating on his own face. This is only one of several very clever moments that Hitch creates in the film.

Even with the somewhat complicated relationship and the non-traditional (even cynical) view of marital relationships, in the end Hitchcock still treats us with the idea of the perfect couple. At the end of the film, we see that they are meant for each other and no one else. Because nobody else would be able to put up with the rigidity of rules, the obsession with technicalities, and the childishness of their antagonism.

It really is a much richer film thematically than most people realize. But even outside of the themes, it’s an extremely funny comedy. Hitchcock did a wonderful job with screwball, striking the perfect balance between dialogue and situation driven comedy and slap stick comedy. And Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery were the perfect team. The had extremely similar approaches to comedy. The could deliver dialogue smartly and sharply, but the were neither afraid nor ashamed to make themselves look ridiculous, which worked brilliantly in both the smaller moments (Lombard trying to zip up an old dress that no longer fits, wondering why a dress would shrink) and the larger moments (the aforementioned scene in which Montgomery tries to give himself a bloody nose). Their chemistry was so strong. It takes a really special kind of chemistry to achieve a convincing romantic comedy about two people who are truly in love, but extremely contentious. It echoes Montgomery’s film from a decade prior, Private Lives with Norma Shearer, which is pretty much the grand-daddy of remarriage comedy. If Lombard hadn’t died so soon after making this movie, they could have made so many more wonderful romantic comedies together.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith
is simply a great movie. Hitchcock was a brilliant director, and this is just further proof of that. It shows he could step outside the box and handle a genre he didn’t typically handle, and it showed he could take the conventions of a genre and cleverly play around with them in ways that nobody else could. Definitely a wonderful film.

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1950

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding, Richard Todd, Alistair Sim

Stage Fright is in many ways exactly what you would expect from Alfred Hitchcock. It is a brilliant premise mixed with suspenseful twists and turns.

The story follows a young theater student as she attempts to assist the man she loves in clearing his name after he is suspected of murder. She bends over backwards for him, utilizing her unrefined acting skills to go undercover in hopes to uncover the truth.

Considering the potential for tension built in to the plot of Stage Fright I thought Hitchcock fell somewhat short. For him this ends up being mediocre compared to some of his films. Lucky for viewers, mediocre for Hitchcock is quite good compared to so many other filmmakers that have worked throughout the decades the medium has been in existence.

The middle of the film drags a bit but is somewhat redeemed by a very engaging opening act and a killer ending (no pun intended)!

Hitchcock manages to not only tell a tale of suspense and danger, but also include a bizarre love story and a number of very memorable characters.

This includes Alistair Sim who plays the father of the young actress. He is loving and devoted, yet willing to aid his young daughter in this dangerous quest for truth. One wonders if his lack of hesitance in consenting to and consorting with his daughter’s dangerous antics stems from a vicarious pleasure he receives from the potential danger she faces, not to mention a desire to see his daughter happy and an eagerness to resort to behavior that is frowned upon by established authority. He is a very convincing nonconformist who is enjoyable to watch.

This doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of the film but as you watch pay attention to Michael Wilding who plays a young detective involved in the murder case who I think has a stunning resemblance to the actor, Alan Cumming. I can’t help but wonder if I am alone in seeing a similiarity between the two.

Jane Wyman is adorable in this role and plays her role remarkably well. The innocence portrayed by Jane Wyman deserves a lot of credit for the level of suspense this film is able to pull off. The audience can’t help but be especially concerned for her welfare due to her naivety.

I also think Marlene Dietrich deserves some credit for creating a very despise-able yet simultaneously enticing character that adds to the impact of the movie. She personifies the sexiness of a woman that is slowly beginning to advance in years but is still confident in regards to the sensuality her presence exudes. After all she was 49 when this movie was released, not exactly a spring chicken!

One aspect this film utilizes masterfully is the power of character perspective, especially in the use of flashbacks. Those familiar with the film will understand what I am saying, those who are not will have to take the time to watch it!

This is a solid film that is worth seeing, but at the same time it is somewhat forgettable. Hitchcock doesn’t live up to his genius in this film but still creates a very engaging plot with some delightfully engaging characters.

By Greg Dickson