Nell hasn’t been in good spirits as of late. It’s been clear from the moment she strolled into that New York hotel lobby in her dazed, doe-eyed manner that she probably isn’t the best suited patron in the room to babysit a tenant’s child – but that doesn’t stop her from accepting the job. She’s down on her luck and could use some sort of opportunity, or second chance, or validation of her existence to pull her through her current rough stint.
See, when her Uncle Eddie who works the hotel elevator drops her off with little Bunny Jones and escorts her parents, Peter and Ruth Jones, downstairs to the big party in the ball room, and Nell is left alone with the child, she starts exhibiting some odd behavior – like trying on Mrs. Jones’ clothes and jewelry, referring to a man who isn’t there, and tying little Bunny up tight with thick rope and gagging her so she’ll finally be quiet.
Told through two overlapping tales of woe and mistrust, Don’t Bother to Knock follows Jed Towers (Richard Widmark) as he stumbles upon the path to redemption, and Nell Forbes (Marilyn Monroe) as she tumbles down the rabbit hole into madness. Jed has just lost his girl, Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft), famous singer and performer at the big hotel bash, and nothing he can say will woo her back. After Lyn angrily dismisses Jed and accuses him of being heartless, he does his best to prove her right, and shacks up with the next girl he can find. Unfortunately for Jed, that girl happens to be Nell.
Nell is fresh off a break up too, but her relationship ended under slightly different circumstances. Instead of losing her Phillip to petty arguments and foolish pride, she lost the love of her life to the throes of war. Phillip crashed his bomber into the ocean in ’46, and now, wrought with trauma, Nell has come to believe in her desperate and delusional mind that Jed, is her Phillip, and he’s come home, finally, to whisk her away to a happy life. Although she appears coy and harmless at first, this shy girl turns deadly, as little hints of her insanity start to spill out as the night trudges on. The red flags begin to pop up as she tries on Mrs. Jones’ jewelry, and the borrowed bracelets slowly roll back to reveal deep scars on her wrists – then it escalates to Nell gently nudging little Bunny Jones out of the hotel window so she and Jed can have some time alone together, before exploding into full on murder and attempted escape.
For a girl who gained fame as a stunningly photogenic sex symbol, working her dumb blonde persona to her advantage, it’s fascinating to see Monroe play someone who’s so irrevocably cracked. Best known as the steamy naïve seductress in films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven Year Itch, and this writer’s personal favorite, Some Like It Hot, it’s a graceful and gratifying pivot to see Marilyn take on the role of a damsel come undone. Jed tells Nell at one point in the film that she’s “silk on one side and sandpaper on the other”, and the description couldn’t be more fitting to Monroe’s performance. As she flutters back and forth between the shy, sweet girl who did everything in truth, to the manipulatively maniacal beauty queen with a screw loose, we really get to see a taste of Monroe’s range, and it’s an invigorating break from the normal romantic comedy routine. Norma Jeane was undoubtedly beautiful, but she was also an actor, and it’s cool to see her given a chance to show off her skills in a rare, multi-layered role for women in cinema in the 1950s.
The film also eerily recalls some of Monroe’s real life psychological problems. Born to a mentally disturbed single mother and never uncovering the true identity of her real father, Monroe bounced around from one foster home to the next as a child, where she was frequently abused, molested, and traumatized. It was around sixteen years old that Monroe, known at the time as little brunette-haired Norma Jeane Mortenson, decided she’d had enough of being a ward of the state, and married herself to Jim Dougherty – a union that lasted all of three years until Monroe, bored to tears, moved away and began modeling full time in 1945, before officially starting her acting career in 1946 under her new stage named and bleached blonde hair.
Monroe loved her stardom, but her natural withdrawn nature still made her apprehensive to the spotlight. She adored acting, but sometimes the idea of having all eyes on her became too much to bear, especially when nervous nature clashed with her less patient male co-stars and demanding directors, who often bullied her and talked down to her, only furthering her stage fright. As a result, Monroe’s crippling anxiety worsened, and she developed a reputation as being difficult to work with due to her frequent tardiness and absence from set. To help her cope with her troubles, Monroe turned to barbiturates and other various downers, and eventually overdosed at the devastatingly young age of thirty-six in 1962. Shortly before her death, she was admitted to a mental institution and hospitalized for her habits, both of which did little to help with her depression.
Given her troubled background and her overall under-appreciated nature, it’s nice to know that a movie like Don’t Bother to Knock exists – it stands as proof of Marilyn’s acting ability, making her more than the naïve blonde bombshell Hollywood had come to typecast her as, while also strangely echoing remnants of her real life, and simultaneously showing her bravely overcoming her odds both on and off screen. Don’t Bother to Knock is an excitedly devious forgotten noir thriller, and one that everyone, especially avid fans of Monroe’s terrific work, should see for themselves.