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.