Although it’s not on my Cinema Shame 2018 list, Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) should have been. Wild that it’s taken me so long to see this film, one I’ve wanted to see for all of its main actors and a noteworthy dramatic turn early in Monroe’s career. And now that I have finally screened it, I have a few comments in response.
First and foremost, as many have already said, this is Monroe’s picture. She does a great character study in crazy, with equal parts innocent allure and vicious menace. I may not agree with Widmark’s character Jed that she didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but she definitely pulls off a heady combo of timid and terrible. There’s a bit more of the pouty whisper than I think the character needed, but ah well, that’s how Monroe was always aimed.
Lovely Anne Bancroft and nervous Elisa Cook, Jr. handle their respective roles (as good girl nightclub singer and well-meaning elevator operator and uncle) well enough. Bankroft doesn’t havve enough to do, and Cook is, as always, reliable and believable throughout. Neither shines, but their roles don’t let them.
I’d describe Widmark’s performance as up and down. He’s good in his scenes with Monroe, providing a nice anxious backdrop for her madness as he alternately exploits, shies from, and becomes entangled in it. But his scenes with Bancroft are remarkably dull. To be clear, I love this actor, especially in his many noir roles, particularly his morally ambiguous parts (e.g. Night and the City and Pickup on South Street). He manages ne’er-do-well with a tough of vulnerability beautifully. And no one has a better psychotic laugh (see Kiss of Death and Road House) or sob (see No way Out) as a noir villain. You can feel the film aim for a bad boy who sees the light — not entirely unlike Skip in Pickup on South Street — but there’s nowhere to go when the relationship is so superficial, almost entirely relayed in backstory.
More than anything else, the film’s ending is unsatisfying. Again, Monroe does her bit well, especially the way she takes the police officer’s hand, á la Blanche Dubois at the end of Streetcar Named Desire. However, the effusive praise Bankroft’s Lyn gives Jed for giving a shit about our crazy protagonist Nell is absurd. The film’s ultimate lesson is that meeting a batshit woman who tries to kill a child really can make you want to settle down with a not-batshit woman, and it’s truly weak.
Perhaps my favorite factoid about the film is that it was originally slated to be directed by Jules Dassin, according to Wikipedia (no source cited). It would have had Dorothy McGuire in the Monroe role, but I’m ignoring that to think about just how much more Dassin might have done with mood (e.g. darkness, silences) to make this watchable drama a mor fully compelling noir. Ah well, see it anyhow.