Putting aside her unfortunate label of “tragic sex icon,” Marilyn Monroe tends to be most associated with comedies: How to Marry a Millionaire, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and of course the sublime Some Like It Hot. However, we should not forget Monroe’s excursions into noir: The Asphalt Jungle, Niagara, and today’s subject, Don’t Bother to Knock.
Essentially a one-room thriller, Don’t Bother to Knock is a bit of a noir outlier: unlike in the more famous Niagara, Monroe isn’t playing a femme fatale, and the story doesn’t involve what we would normally associate with noir (detectives, criminals, hard-nosed dames, suckers with bad luck, fatalism, etc.). But it must be remembered that noir is a very flexible genre/movement/whatever-you-define-it. It’s more about atmosphere and sensibility than tropes, and when you take that into account, Don’t Bother to Knock is noir to the core, suffused with that moody, uneasy postwar anxiety that characterizes all classic noir from Double Indemnity to Touch of Evil.
Technically, Monroe is not the film’s protagonist. That would be Richard Widmark’s Jed Towers, a pilot whose hotel lounge singer girlfriend (Anne Bancroft in her movie debut) dumps him for being too hard-hearted. Nursing his bruised ego in one of the hotel’s rooms, Jed spies a beautiful woman in a window opposite his. This is Monroe’s character, Nell Forbes, a fragile young woman babysitting a wealthy guest’s child. Jed calls up the room and Nell agrees to have him over, but what Jed thinks will be a casual tryst becomes something more awful when it becomes clear that Nell is a disturbed woman. Convinced Jed is her dead fiance (who also happened to be a pilot), she endeavors to keep him close and to harm anyone who dares get in their way– including the little girl in her charge.
From that synopsis, you might expect Nell to be little more than your garden variety psycho, but the film is far more compassionate than that. We get bits and pieces of Nell’s sad backstory, and it’s clear that she isn’t a monster to be slain but a lost soul crying out for help. Monroe must be commended for not going over the top with either the character’s menace or pathos. Widmark also gets a meaty role, going from a cynical hardass to a more understanding human being.
The film moves briskly, squeezing all the suspense possible from the situation and the single location. Don’t Bother to Knock might not be as iconic as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or The Seven-Year Itch, but it might just feature Monroe’s best performance. It’s certainly a rebuff to any proposal that she was only a pretty face.