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    Heartstopping Heartbreak

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Made early in her blazing movie career before the full range of her comedic and dramatic gifts were fully explored, it’s intriguing to note that many later reappraisals of the Marilyn Monroe thriller Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) cite the storyline of a mentally fragile woman whose personal insecurities and sad delusions trigger dangerous behavior seem to prefigure her later-in-life struggles. It does endure as a neatly executed noir exercise with a richer than usual bench of character portrayals from Monroe’s colleagues Richard Widmark, young Donna Corcoran, Jeanne Cagney, Lurene Tuttle, Elisha Cook Jr., Jim Backus and Verna Felton, and in that company, Monroe impressively delivers the goods. As The Motion Picture Guide’s Jay Robert Nash and Stanley Ralph Ross succinctly (as perhaps too bluntly) put it about this compact caper set inside a Manhattan hotel: “A taut, little chiller,…Don’t Bother to Knock is directed with a quick pace by Roy [Ward] Baker [who would also ratchet up the suspense screws in the desert vistas of Inferno (1953, another Twilight Time title) a year later], the Daniel Taradash script [adapted from a novel by prolific mystery writer Charlotte Armstrong] is as tight as a sardine can, and all the principals so well with their roles, especially lovely Marilyn Monroe. This was her 18th film and her first real dramatic part, one is which she is a standout as a tormented, nerve-wracked soul battling reality, a condition not unlike the state in which she found herself just before her suicide.” 

    The actress plays a young woman who agrees, on the recommendation of her hotel elevator operator uncle (Cook), to babysit a youngster (Corcoran) while her parents (Backus and Tuttle) attend a function downstairs. However, she gets into, as the title of the source novel asserts, “mischief” when she catches the eye of a nearby hotel guest, a visiting airline pilot (Widmark) on the romantic outs with his long-time squeeze, the hotel’s lounge singer played, in her notable movie debut by a compelling Anne Bancroft. The resulting flirtation between the child-minder and the somewhat caddish plane jockey evokes tragic memories of her former boyfriend – a pilot whose plane was lost at sea – and the lady’s frail, heretofore hidden delusional state sets off a series of perilous events, all of which unfold in a taut 76 minutes. Monroe reportedly struggled with the role and caused some consternation with her director and castmates, but 66 years later, that very process of struggle seems to vindicate the promise of her undeniable talent on screen, while subsequent assessments of Don’t Bother to Knock, which got no critical love in its time but now seems all the more “on the cusp” of greater things henceforth, not only for Monroe (who would show further evidence of her dramatic chops as a scheming wife contemplating spousal murder in the following year’s Niagara), but for Baker and Bancroft too. As Kalyn Corrigan wrote last summer in a ruminative essay, there’s anxiety and “heartbreak” in watching Don’t Bother to Knock; read her thoughts here: TT’s hi-def Blu-ray, featuring documentary profiles of Monroe and Widmark as well as an Isolated Music Track of the score of popular songs and thriller riffs conducted by Lionel Newman, offers the evidence when it checks in March 20. Preorders open March 7.