Retro Film Review: Don’t Bother to Knock

Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) directed by Roy Ward Baker, starring Richard Widmark & Marilyn Monroe

The poster for Don’t Bother to Knock features Marilyn Monroe in a glittering red corset, her hair a golden halo around her head. I have no idea why. This image does a disservice to the early glimmer of dramatic ability glimpsed in this film, which was Monroe’s fourteenth credited film appearance, her first starring role, and she made before Niagara, her breakthrough performance.

A New York hotel like any other. In the bar, cabaret singer Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft) mourns the end of her relationship with pilot Jed Towers (Richard Widmark). Meanwhile, a few floors up, elevator operator Eddie (Elisha Cook Jr.) has promised a wealthy couple the services of his niece to babysit their daughter, Bunny. In steps Marilyn as Nell Forbes. Gone are the platinum curls that had already become her trademark, gone are the jewels and furs she would spend the rest of her career wearing. Nell is a fragile, timid girl with mousy brown and wild, nervous eyes. Left to her own devices in the apartment, she tries on the glamorous Mrs Jones’ night gown and some of her jewels. Jed, from his room across the courtyard, watches her and, mistaking her for a wealthy young woman, calls the room in an attempt to seduce her. What follows, however, is not a romance at all, but a dramatic thriller tinged with the post-war heartache of 1950s America, and an origin of the ‘crazy babysitter’ story.

Don’t Bother to Knock, much forgotten in discussions of her career, is one of Monroe’s finest performances. It is raw with emotion and, with all the artifice of her ‘blonde bombshell’ persona stripped back, it feels at times as though we are not watching Marilyn at all, but rather catching a rare glimpse of Norma Jeane: a fragile girl playing dress-up.

Words: Jack Casey