Saturday, March 31, 2012

Straight From The Shoulder

So it’s happened again. I’ve gotten in the habit of staying up late watching movies, seeing how much later I can push it to the darkness. One problem in all this is that at the same time I’ve been trying to make it a habit to get up early every morning so I don’t find myself still lying around at 11 AM, trying to convince myself to finally go shower. So it’s not an ideal situation. Some nights it’s like a movie where at the end the hero is left by himself, wandering into the night wondering about the woman who left him high and dry, the sort that should be only 75 minutes long but instead it just goes on and on. That’s the world. That’s the way it works.

I could believe that if DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK had been included in the Fox Noir DVD line it would probably be considered the surprise of the bunch but as fate would have it the 1952 film features Marilyn Monroe in an early starring performance so naturally it’s always packaged in with those titles. Except for the occasional SOME LIKE IT HOT viewing it’s actually been some time since I’ve seen any Monroe film but, her talent aside, in my head I always wind up lumping several of them in together in a 50’s-Fox-CinemaScope-gaudy color sort of way, which isn’t always where my interests lie. And really, is there a more agonizing experience imaginable than sitting through THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS? Even if some of the imagery is iconic, would anyone place THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH among Billy Wilder’s best? Are you really going to try to convince me that there’s much of value in LET’S MAKE LOVE? The reputation of DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK has never made it seem all that notable, with some Monroe biographies barely spending a page on the picture. Not much praise is offered either—even Norman Mailer called it “a slow and disappointing piece of cinema” in his bio “Marilyn” while adding that it’s worth a look if only for the chance to see the actress give a serious performance, a take which seems more than a little dismissive of the rest of the film, but far be it from me to pick a fight with Norman Mailer.

The more noirs I see the more it becomes clear that it’s almost impossible to find one that isn’t at least a little enjoyable in some way. Sure, a few wind up disappointing and some simply don’t work but they almost always provide some sort of pleasure, if only at luxuriating in that smoke-and-booze filled black & white world for 80 minutes. The reputation of DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK seems to have improved over time, maybe because people are discovering the noir angle in it but there’s also the genuine surprise of seeing the normally bubbly Monroe in a role like this. And the film works extremely well in its own small way partly because of how effective she is in this role but also because of the elements that surround her, including Richard Widmark as cool as he ever was, as well as the sight of Anne Bancroft in her first film, displaying a huge amount of cool presence in not much screen time, playing an ingénue part that doesn’t quite fit her talents but even that makes the atmosphere all the more unique. The compact narrative, set entirely in a hotel in one night with the key ingredient of two hotel rooms that look out at each other via courtyard is another element that is well utilized and watching this movie makes me want to go stay in a hotel for a week or so to soak in some of this environment, preferably one that has an Automat (also mentioned in dialogue) across the street. Even an early bit where Anne Bancroft chats with a bartender then suddenly turns around into her spotlight to begin singing “How About You” makes me wish that sort of thing would happen more often at the Dresden, but I doubt the world is like this anymore, if it even ever was. Did I ever tell you my own story about a girl in the other room across the courtyard? I probably shouldn’t be writing about it here. DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK has to be a case where the people involved make the end result a little more than the simple B it would have been if that right sort of talent wasn’t there. And as I drift later into the night, maybe I’ll put it on once again.

Nell Forbes (Marilyn Monroe) who appears at first glance to be a shy, quiet young woman, has been brought down to the McKinley Hotel by her elevator operator Uncle Eddie (Elisha Cook, Jr.) to babysit for a couple going to a banquet in the hotel that evening. Down in the hotel lounge, singer Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft) has decided to break it off with her boyfriend of six months pilot Jed Towers (Richard Widmark), saying that because of his cold nature she sees no future for them. Back up in his room brooding over what’s happened, Jed spies Nell across the courtyard and decides to give her room a call. Soon enough he’s over in her room on the make and with a bottle of rye, not aware of the little girl in the next room who Nell is supposed to be watching and with no idea of how unstable Nell really is.

Considering how much is known about Marilyn Monroe by now it’s almost hard not to watch the increasingly unstable character she plays DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK and wonder about its relation to the real thing. At the very least it seems like a better use of Monroe’s talents than the material she was sometimes given to play in frothy comedies—maybe those were the films that helped develop her forever-iconic stature more than this film did but a few were still a waste when it came to what she was clearly capable of. DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK was directed by Roy Baker, later commonly known as Roy Ward Baker, notable for directing A NIGHT TO REMEMBER along with what were some of the better later Hammer films including QUATERMASS AND THE PIT and DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE. One of several films he made for Fox during this period, DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK has the basic feel of other such films from the studio around the time, down to the blaring trumpets over the opening titles which seemed to be in every single one of their movies, whether they fit or not. But Baker brings a swift approach to the material, establishing the atmosphere of this hotel (a slightly out-of-fashion hotel as indicated in some dialogue) in broad strokes, offering a subtly effective job in laying out the corners of the place along with the views across that courtyard and legendary cinematographer Lucien Ballard certain helps with this evocative atmosphere.

Doing a smooth job at staging so much of the film in a single setting so it never feels like just a programmer being made on a budget, director Baker clearly knows how to always keep what’s going on in the various places active in relation to each other, aided by how Bancroft’s crooning (well, I’m assuming she’s dubbed) is piped into the various rooms. Cleverly, doing this keeps her character alive when she isn’t seen for a long stretch in the middle. And he arranges the elements in ideal fashion so when everything happening in this hotel room all finally bubbles over, leading to the phone ringing at the most inopportune moment imaginable, the moment pays off extremely well. The screenplay by Daniel Taradash from the BLANK by Charlotte Armstrong contains a good amount of snazzy dialogue, particularly during the stretch when Widmark gets to know Monroe (one favorite exchange: “I like you. I’ll probably dream about you tonight.” “Don’t be rash.”) which maybe falters a little when it tries to get more serious, like some of what Bancroft is handed, but this is almost a minor quibble. The genuine tension that comes from both the cross-cutting of various parts of the hotel along with characters who have been allowed to develop even within a brief span of time makes it clear just how strong some of this film is. Running just 76 minutes DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK is tight and fast, not wasting time for a second—I think we spend about twenty seconds with the parents down in that banquet because there’s no point in staying away from the likes of Monroe and Widmark any more than is necessary. Of course, this is fitting for a film set within the span of just a few hours, but the pairing of the two works so well that it makes me wish they could have worked together again.

DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK may be noir but Nell isn’t some sort of femme fatale to be cruelly vanquished, just a girl who’s been damaged by the past, by the war, by the night and set off again at the most inopportune time through no fault of her own. Sex doesn’t even seem to be a part of what’s going on in her head—when she dresses up in the wife’s clothes and jewelry she’s almost doing it as a little girl would, not even seeming to comprehend how attractive she might be. As things play out it’s a film where the most interesting character is really a catalyst for the conflict the lead is going through with his own love interest, moving Widmark’s pilot from a smooth operator looking for nothing more than a drink, a kiss and a laugh now and then who uses a bit of trickery to coax a dog into an elevator to realizing that he has to find a way to genuinely connect with Nell somehow in order to help her. The smiles that do occur at the fade-out feel a little obligatory considering what’s just happened and after one character’s anguished exclamation of, “I guess we’ve never seen anybody like her,” in relation to Nell (makes sense in relation to the actress being referred to as well) nothing else sticks quite as much. Watching Marilyn Monroe as she baffles Richard Widmark and almost everyone else around with her genuinely unexpected behavior has had that sort of lasting effect.

That effect results in what is certainly one of Monroe’s strongest performances and, even if it has gotten more attention in recent years, one that remains one of her most underappreciated. Her approach is not to play instability in a big movie-star sort of way but as if she’s actually turning into this damaged person, imploding into her very being. Not only does the grief she feels seem genuine so does her instability, how clear it becomes that she shouldn’t be anywhere near this girl she’s supposed to be taking care of. That mechanical yet haunting way she reads that story to the girl or how she calmly, eerily, tells the girl (played by Donna Corcoran) what the people across the courtyard are doing and, in her interactions with this guy she’s invited over, the ‘happily ever after’ in her head that she seems to be deluding herself into thinking is there. Richard Widmark, the one who does get the movie star role, is Mr. Smooth and in every movement sells this guy who in one evening gets how he’s set in his ways shaken up from several directions, eyes darting at someone who he thinks is lingering a little too long and completely baffled at how to handle this unstable person he’s gotten mixed up with after being cooped up with her for a few minutes. Anne Bancroft (only about 22 here, which seems impossible) doesn’t have as much screentime and I could believe she seems visibly uncomfortable done up as a nightclub singer in an ingénue role but the mature glamour she exudes is undeniable, turning a role that would be an also-ran in other hands into someone who matches right up with the marquee stars. When she finally shares the screen with Monroe it’s like two constellations are meeting. Lurene Tuttle and Jim Backus are the parents of the girl (not much of a part for Backus, actually) and the great, jittery, overly talkative Elisha Cook, Jr. as Nell’s uncle is basically playing the Elisha Cook, Jr. role but, frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

As I write this I’m sitting, glancing at the window across the way which is dark right now. The girl in particular hasn’t been in there for a long time anyway. Instead, I’ll focus on DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK, the sort of film that I’ve found myself liking more and more as time has gone on. Because it’s the sort of film that works so well I feel more people should know about it but also because it’s the sort of film, the sort of surprising genre piece, I’ve found myself becoming increasingly attracted to as time as gone on. Films like this don’t get made anymore, at least not like this, any more than this sort of hotel life goes on either. But it did get made and it’s still around now for me to watch once again in the dead of night and dream of going down to a lounge where Anne Bancroft is crooning for hours on end. Or dream about the girl across the way. As long as I love them, maybe they won’t be old movies. Maybe they’ll just be the movies that I love.

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