Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Armstrong_Mischief_pandoraThat truly disturbing suspense character, the unhinged baby sitter, helped to get entrenched with Mischief, Charlotte Armstrong’s novel subsequently filmed as Don’t Bother to Knock with Marilyn Monroe. We begin in New York as Peter and Ruth Jones  await the arrival of the sitter to look after their nine-year-old daughter …

The following book and film review is offered for Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for links, click here); Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom; and the celebration of 1952 mysteries over at Rich’s Past Offences.

She drew the hairbrush once around her throat

Told in real time, we start with a charming portrait of the Jones family – Bunny is a very cute nine-year-old, used to having the attention of her devoted parents. Peter is the editor of a local newspaper, Ruth is his rock and a devoted homemaker – both are mad about each other and their daughter. They are staying in room 807 of a modest hotel, the Majestic, as Peter is due to accept an industry award but can’t leave as planned because they  have been let down by his sister at the last-minute so there is none to look after Bunny, who will sleep in the connecting room, 809. But Peter talks to the bellhop Eddie, who suggests his niece could babysit at short notice. When she arrives Nell proves to be young, pretty and extremely quiet – in fact somewhat remote, saying next to nothing. It turns out she has a history though, one Eddie has not shared with the Jones’ …

She said, “Won’t you sit down?” Her voice was flat and matter-of-fact. Yet he wasn’t sure whether she used a cliché or mocked one.

Armstrong_Mischief_aceJed Towers has a room at the same hotel and can see into room 807. A hard-bitten man about to fly West to make his fortune, he is trying to cool off after a silly argument with his girlfriend. Just about to break out his little black book, through his window he sees Nell making herself at home. He phones her and then heads over with some booze, looking to make-up for the seemingly wasted evening. Nell in the meantime has been trying on Ruth’s clothes and perfume (spilling most of it) and is paying no attention at all to Bunny. Jed is physically attracted to Nell but realises fairly quickly that she is not who she seems – and when Bunny bursts in, he realises she is the sitter and that he really should leave. But Nell doesn’t want that and threatens to say he broke in if he tries to go.

“You’re not going,” she said with no rising inflection at all. It wasn’t even a protest. She just said this, as if it were so.

The transition of Nell from rather sullen young woman to something much more troubling is handled steadily and expertly so as to give us a portrait of a deeply disturbed individual that is pretty convincing. The plot, on the other hand, does at this point start to strain. Having established that Jed is a hardboiled, no-nonsense kind of guy, he now seems incapable of finding a way of getting out of the room, seemingly just out of social embarrassment and the fear of what the baby sitter might say, even though he has barely been in the room a few minutes. When there is a knock on the door he ends up hiding in bathroom while Nell speaks to Eddie, who is sensibly keeping an eye on his niece. We learn that she was orphaned when her house burned down, killing her parents. Inevitably the reader will start to wonder just who set that fire, especially after Nell smashes her uncle’s head in with an ashtray after he heads for the bathroom.

He lifted his own head suddenly. Bunny was not screaming. The empty air pulsed in the sudden absence of that terrible sound

Armstrong_Mischief_mysteriouspressHaving set up the basic situation, now it’s a question of seeing if Jed will do the right thing and save Bunny or just run out on the situation – Ruth has a niggling doubt about Nell and decides to head back while a neighbour, having heard the commotion after Eddie was slugged (he is now passed out on the floor of the bathroom) insists on visiting the room, as does another woman who happens to be passing by. The suspense is nicely built up though it doesn;t all feel credible but ultimately this is a story about one very disturbed individual and about more average people and what they will do when put under pressure. It’s been a while since I read anything by Armstrong and I enjoyed renewing my acquaintance, though there are a few improbabilities here, though I think these are inherent in virtually any story that decides to play out in real time.

“The female race is always cheesing up my life” – Jed (Richard Widmark) to Nell (Marilyn Monroe) in Don’t Bother to Knock

This was also the way the movie version was structured, coming in at a brisk 76 minutes. It made a number of smart amendments too. Shot entirely in the studio, it makes a virtue of respecting the unities of time by also making the space more important. Re-named the McKinley, the hotel is now the sole space for the film – the Jones’ reception is merely in the ballroom and Jed’s girlfriend Lyn is a singer in the hotel bar and Nell can hear her performance piped in to the room via in intercom system.

Made by British director Roy (Ward) Baker, this is a small-scale effort that succeeds thanks to a really excellent cast with Marilyn Monroe and Richard Widmark especially well cast as Nell and Jed. Anne Bancroft made her movie debut here as Lyn and does OK, warbling through several songs (she was dubbed) but hasn’t got a lot to do except fight with Widmark until the end; Elisha Cook Jr is perfectly cast to type as the nervous, too eager-to-please Eddy. Perhaps predictably, Monroe’s character is broadened a little, more obviously a sad fantasist from a deprived background with an obsession with flying after a boyfriend flew away and never returned. Having survived a suicide attempt (the scars on her wrists are presented surprisingly directly), she now latches on to Jed because (in the movie) he is a pilot and reminds her of her lost love.

Dont-Bother-to-Knock03

Jed (Richard Widmark): “I can’t figure you out. You’re silk on one side and sandpaper on the other”
Nell (Marilyn Monroe): “I’ll be anyway you want me to be”
Jed (Richard Widmark): “Why?”

The movie predictably softens its stance on the characters but on its own terms works just as well as the book, which incidentally was later adapted again, this time for the 1991 TV movie The Sitter written and directed by Rick Berger and starring Kim Myers, Brett Cullen and Susan Barnes.

DVD Availability: Available on DVD in most territories in a bare bones but technically very competent edition.

Dont-Bother-to-Knock01

Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)
Director: Roy Baker
Producer: Julian Blaustein
Screenplay: Daniel Tarandash
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Art Direction: Richard Irvine, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Lionel Newman (musical director)
Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Richard Widmark, Anne Bancroft, Elisha Cook Jr., Jim Backus, Lurene Tuttle, Jeanne Cagney

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘author I’ve read before’ category:

vintage-golden-card-marked-19

 

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

 

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24 Responses to Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Sergio – Thanks for this really interesting look at this film and book. I think you have a well-taken point about how difficult it is for a story to play out credibly in real time. It takes a very deft hand to do that well. Still, this sounds like a solid, creepy psychological thriller. And I’ve always liked Anne Bancroft’s work.

    • Thanks Margot – I hadb;t read anythign by Armstrong ina very long time but really enjoyed getting re-acquainted (sic) though I donl;t think this is her best work and I suspect that the strain of the real time storytelling may have somethign to do with it.

  2. Colin says:

    I always liked the movie, which features good work from Widmark and Monroe – and the cast is fine all round in fact.
    Roy Ward Baker was doing great work at this time and his short stint in Hollywood – Inferno really is a top film – stands up well.

    I haven’t read the book but you’ve got me interested now.

    • Thanks Colin (Inferno just came out on Blu-ray on 3-D by the way from Panamint) – in the Nell is in a way less prominent but more plausible if less sympathetic – in the film she is given more to do but we feel a lot sorrier for her.

      • Colin says:

        I’ll be picking up Inferno some time – the Blu-ray sounds really attractive, doesn’t it?

        The fact the book and film have some differences that sound good in their own ways has me interested.

        • I’ll be very curious to know what you make of it – I think Baker does an excellent job, as does the cast. It is fairly low key in terms of presentation, naturalistic and not too melodramatic, but that is a real selling point as it makes it all the more plausible. The still I use of Monroe and Widmark in the mirror is actually one of the few that is even vaguely expressionistic as the camera has a slight tilt to it (and that was probably as much to get the reflection to work for the composition as to sell the growing sense of her disassociation from reality) but mostly Ballard’s sterliong camerawork is very subdued.

          • Colin says:

            On the subject of Baker’s movies, I’ve never seen a couple of his early thrillers – Paper Orchid and Night Without Sleep – the latter sounds particularly interesting too.

          • Very annoyed to have to admit that I am in the same boat – the lack of availability of Night Without Sleep is particularly annoying (even though it does sound like a rehash of the oldest amnesia plot in the universe) actually because it seems so stramge that it isn’t out there (sic). SOme places claim to ofefr it online but I am not convinced of the legality

          • Colin says:

            Pity. A Fox title, isn’t it? Lots of stuff from them remains hard to come by.

          • I think it’s his last Fox project (or thereabouts) – I’ve got his bography at home … Probably turn up on theit MOD service, which seems to be about the worse one out there …

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    I don’t think I have ever seen this. Nor read the book. It may be in a Charlotte Armstrong reader I have. Will check.

  4. I read this book years ago and found it completely compelling, unputdownable. I think probably afterwards there are a few questions, which you express very well, but it certainly worked on me at the time. I then very much wanted to see the film, but of course in those days it was really difficult to find an old forgotten film (even one starring Marilyn) and I’m not sure whether I did or not. Perhaps now I should re-read the book and try to see the film too…

    • Thanks Moira – it was good fun watching immediately after reading the book – they both compliment each other quite well – and at least nothing too awful happens to the child – I probably should have specified this in the review …

  5. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have read the book and also seen the film.
    Though nothing great, both are enjoyable thrillers.
    I found the book scarier than the film as Nell is much more menacing in the book.

    • Thanks Santosh, I mainly agfree that Nell is a scarier, more plausible figure int he novel – but the movie has good points too and it is a surprise how mater-of-fact the suicidal impulses of the character are depicted given the vontage. Possibly the advantages of making a low budget thriller that wouldn’t draw to much attention!

  6. Todd Mason says:

    Any role that didn’t demand that Monroe be Mae West’s goofier daughter was usually a better fit. I haven’t seen this one in years…I remember finding it good, but more sad than suspenseful…and had barely read Armstrong (in a AHP: antho, naturally) when I saw it…time to Go Look!

    • Spot-on Todd – it’s a remarkably able fit for the Monroe persona by making her both a bit dangerous but also tragic and self-destructive. The book just about manages to sustain the real-time conceit (my edition is about 150 pages long) but explicates the character far less.

  7. Sergio, I agree, Nell does come across as someone quite scary and, like Jed, not the kind of person you want to be in the same house with. I can’t help thinking this story is about her and that the rest of the characters merely orbit around. Still, I’d rather settle for the novel first and then watch Monroe in Nell’s avatar. I have never really been her fan.

  8. Bev Hankins says:

    Sergio: The Friends of the Library bookstore had a copy of this a while back and I gave it a pass. Armstrong has been hit or miss with me and the synopsis just didn’t grab me. Having read your review (excellent, as always!), I’m still not sure this is one I’d enjoy.

    • Thanks Bev. Well, it’s definitely a psychological thriller rather than a mystery – what good about it is the character of Nell and she is very well drawn I fell and the conclusion is highly moralistic. There is only a threat of violence, nobody is seriously hurt by the conclusion, so it never feels heavy or violent – it’s a very interesting experiemnt in suspense and it mostly works.

  9. TracyK says:

    This sounds like a really good book that might be too tense for me. Same for the movie although I might be able to handle the movie. I had no idea that Monroe was in a movie like this.

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