Film Review: Don't Bother To Knock (Roy Ward Baker, 1952)

This was a bit of a shocker for me, for a couple of reasons. Before I tell you why, let me introduce the film. 

DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK (1952) was directed by Roy Ward Baker and stars Marilyn Monroe, Richard Widmark, Elisha Cook Jr., and Anne Bancroft. It's a tight, well-polished and gripping psychological thriller with noir leanings. The whole story takes place during a single night inside a hotel. Monroe plays a troubled young woman whose uncle (Elisha Cook Jr.) works the elevator. He got her a babysitting job for a well-to-do couple staying at the hotel. She's obviously troubled, for reasons yet unknown. From the start, and as the story develops, we are gradually and subtly given more and more reasons not to trust her. Meanwhile, Widmark plays a pilot also staying in the hotel. He's on the outs with his girlfriend (Bancroft), who sings in the hotel nightclub. Needless to say, the two storylines intersect, and the fun is seeing how it will happen and how it will turn out.
This is one of a handful of American films directed by Roy Ward Baker, who otherwise had an impressive and varied career in British film and television. The strong talent in front of and behind the camera is evident in every scene. The camerawork and lighting are consistently effective and at times remarkable. Some of the hard-boiled dialogue unfortunately comes off a bit too artificial, especially in the first act. Fortunately, it flows smoothly enough once things start moving. The resolutions to the two storylines are somewhat predictable, but the actors (especially Monroe and Widmark) sell their characters so convincingly that it never feels dull or tired.
That's why this was such a shocker for me. I'd always heard people say that BUS STOP (1956) was the film where Monroe showed she was more than just a "glamour personality," as one critic wrote at the time. Yet here was Monroe's first starring role, coming a year before her blonde bombshell persona took the world by storm, and she is phenomenal. At the beginning I was unsure, because her character is pouty and nervous. I thought maybe that was just Marilyn Monroe being pouty and nervous, but no. It quickly becomes obvious that this character has many layers, and coy is just an outer, protective shell. Monroe's range here is remarkable. She brings the character melancholy, rage, menace, romanticism and, most of all, vulnerability. At the same time, the camera perfectly frames her stunning beauty, but only when it serves the plot. When needs be, she is downright scary. With such a rich, layered role, you might expect her to occasionally be unconvincing. She is not. Not for a second. It's truly remarkable, and it makes the following decade of her career--the last decade of her life--all the more tragic.
The other shocker is less monumental. This was Anne Bancroft's film debut, and she is stunning. Her character is not as well-developed as it should have been, which is perhaps the greatest weakness of the story. Still, though she was only twenty years old, she sells every second of her screen time, making her character as true as possible given the limited material. Not only that, but she sings. A lot. And it's lovely!

Fans of Baker, Monroe, Widmark, Bancroft and/or film noir should not miss this one.


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