One thing Netflix is pretty great for is old movies. They have plenty of non-canonical films from the studio era that they probably think no one is watching- how wrong they are! Recently I’ve been sifting through the entire Marilyn Monroe Collection, including highly enjoyable viewings of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Monkey Business. However, today’s review concerns a 1952 psychological thriller called Don’t Bother To Knock, directed by Roy Ward Baker.
It’s one of those everything-takes-place-in-one-location movies, focusing on a crazy night in New York’s McKinley Hotel. Besides Monroe, Don’t Bother To Knock features Richard Widmark and Elisha Cook, Jr., best known as that one guy from House on Haunted Hill. It also features the film debut of a young Anne Bancroft, oddly way less attractive here than she was in her middle age. Widmark plays airline pilot Jed Towers, moping in his room after being dumped by Lyn Lesley (Bancroft), the singer in the hotel bar. Meanwhile, elevator man Eddie (Cook) helps his odd niece, Nell (Monroe), by getting her a job babysitting in the same hotel for the night. Trouble arises when the lonely Jed spies Nell across the courtyard and decides to try and drown his sorrows in a one-night fling. He finds his way to her apartment, only to discover that a strange darkness lurks behind Nell’s pretty looks.
Nell is an atypical role for Monroe, as it lacks any comedic elements and involves a slow descent into madness. Allegedly, she chose the role in an attempt to prove she could act. Although her success in that respect is debatable, she remains eminently watchable and charismatic. Luckily, because her character is clearly troubled, the earnestness of Monroe’s performance gives Nell a disturbing quality that ends up really working with the movie. In fact, it’s the overall unsettling atmosphere that makes Don’t Bother To Knock worth a watch. Baker’s direction is restrained, slowly filling the cozy hotel with a looming sense of uneasiness. There are even flashes of Hitchcock-y suspense in some of the imagery, like the pre-Rear Window cross-courtyard spying, or a Vertigo-like case of mistaken identity. The use of a single setting is quite claustrophobic, and even early moments of oddness, like Nell’s refusal to eat candy, contribute to a growing sense of dread. The low-key style of the directing adds to the atmosphere by grounding the story in realism, even if elements of the plot might seem contrived.
Unfortunately, despite the excellent buildup, the payoff is mostly unsatisfying, not really big enough to justify all the tension. Still, on the plus side, the movie is incredibly short, clocking in at just 76 minutes. That makes it well worth a viewing, and I actually wouldn’t have minded if it went on a little longer. If you’re in the mood for a creepy old thriller that boasts some good early performances by a couple of classic Hollywood’s biggest stars, check out Don’t Bother To Knock.