An airline pilot, dumped by his girlfriend, pursues a baby-sitter in his hotel...and gradually realizes she's dangerous.
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She can’t act. She doesn’t have what it takes to be a dramatic actress. Let her be a comedienne. She looks so great in those dresses she’s been sown into. All she has to do is wiggle and walk and the audience will go crazy. These are phrases “critics,” movie insiders, and “experts” used to describe Marilyn Monroe and her aspirations to be a dramatic actress. These “critics” and “experts” never saw her in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952). As a matter of fact, not many of her fans have seen the movie even today. But it is one of the best performances she gave on film and one of the hardest for her to do.
Don’t Bother to Knock would make an interesting remake in today’s Hollywood. For the most part the suspense is great in the picture. There are a few scenes that could be tightened to enhance the suspense. There is a very real fear present in the story however, which makes the movie interesting. The fear a mother has when she leaves her only child alone with a stranger for the night while she and her husband go out. This is something that occurs every night in America. A woman calls a babysitter and trusts the sitter to take good care of the child until she comes back. There has to be some fear in the back of every mother’s mind that the babysitter turns out to be a psycho and the child is put into danger. This is what happens to Ruth Jones. She leaves her only child, Bunny, to be watched by Nell (Monroe), who is fresh out of an Oregon mental institution. We aren’t told this at first, but learn it from Nell’s uncle Eddy, Elisha Cook Jr., who works at the hotel the Jones’ are staying at and recommended her to them.
The basis for the movie was a rather dull novel called “Mischief” written by Charlotte Armstrong. The book is too spread out for the story to seem plausible. In the movie both Jed, Richard Widmark, and the Jones' stay at the same hotel. They don’t in the book. Because they don’t it seems less likely that the two will ever cross paths. In the movie though everything is tied together. Jed stays at the same hotel that his “girlfriend” Lyn Lesley, played by Anne Bancroft in her first screen appearance, performs at as a signer. Jed rides up and down the elevator run by Nell’s uncle. He has a room directly across the courtyard from the Jones family, which makes him a perfectly logical person to be caught up in the drama with Nell and Bunny. Like The Maltese Falcon, Don’t Bother to Knock happens to be one of those rare movies that is better than the book. In this case it is far superior.
What is interesting about Marilyn Monroe’s performance as Nell is that she is playing essentially someone from her own family. Her family had a history of psychotic and suicidal behavior. Both her mother and her grandparents on her mother’s side died in mental institutions. In fact, while Marilyn was making this movie her mother was in an institution. It had to be hard for her to wake up every morning and have to prepare herself to play a disturbed woman. To make matters worse, this was the first time Marilyn was cast in the leading role. She is forced to carry the picture and at times is unable to do this.
Getting back to the plot though, Jed notices Nell and becomes infatuated with her as his relationship with Lynn is on the skids since he only seems to care about himself. At first he seems to care a lot about Nell until he finds out that she is crazy. Then he tries his best to leave the place. The two end up making a lot of noise, causing Bunny to wake up and question why Jed is in her parent’s room with Nell. This makes Nell mad as she believes Jed is the same man who she was in love with but was killed during World War II. Nell does not want Bunny to take Jed away from her, so she attempts to kill the kid.
While this is going on, Jed slips out and finds Lyn. He tells her this wild story and then remembers that Bunny is probably unsafe where she is. He rushes up to the Jones’ room and finds Nell and Ruth struggling over Bunny. Ruth wins and saves her child. Nell runs out and attempts to slash her wrists, but Lyn talks her out of doing this. Instead the police come to take her away.
In her first leading role Marilyn delivers a great performance as do her co-stars. Don’t Bother to Knock is a must see for those who consider themselves Marilyn Monroe fans. But be warned this isn’t Sugar Kane or The Girl from The Seven Year Itch (1955), this is Marilyn as you’ve never seen her before.