Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The postman rings

TCM's Summer Under the Stars continues today with 24 hours of movies dedicated to Anne Bancroft. I've mentioned Nightfall before, and that's already aired, but it's not out on DVD. TCM don't have the rights to too many films from 20th Century-Fox, so one of the Bancroft movies they couldn't air is Don't Bother to Knock.

Bancroft isn't really the star; that honor falls to Marilyn Monroe. She plays a baby sitter for a New York hotel who, as we'll eventually see, has a dark past. The male lead is Richard Widmark, who plays an airline pilot who stays in this particular hotel whenever he's in New York. He's got some problems in his life, in that he's carrying on a relationship with Bancroft, who plays the hotel lounge act, but the relationship is quickly going south. So, Widmark looks out his hotel window, sees the lovely Monroe in the room on the other side of the courtyard, and calls her room. He probably shouldn't have.

Poor Richard Widmark soon discovers that Monroe has a screw loose. She only came to the big city to get away from the small town where she grew up: she had married a pilot who fought in World War II, and was killed in action; this caused her to suffer a nervous breakdown and slit her wrists. Her parents put her in an asylum, but after she was released, she went to New York because her uncle lives there; he (played by Elisha Cook) got Monroe the baby-sitting job. However, she's still mentally fragile, and loses it, eventually taking the kid she's supposed to be watching hostage.

Don't Bother to Knock is very atypical work for Marilyn Monroe. She's pretty good at it, although not quite great. It was still early in her career when she made this movie, and if she had decided to try her hand at more serious dramas, she probably could have improved a good deal as a dramatic actress; I think she's even better in Niagara. Part of the problem, though, is that this isn't an easy role to play, and it's quite easy to veer into the maudlin or the parodic when trying to play mentally unstable characters. Widmark is fine, although the script doesn't call for anybody other than Monroe to do too much. Bancroft's role is small enough that there's nothing to be critical about.

The "spot the character actor" game is as fun as always. Jim Backus plays the father of the girl being baby-sat, while the aforementioned Elisha Cook is not only Monroe's uncle, but an elevator operator at the hotel. (An interesting bit of trivia is that he had also played an elevator operator 11 years earlier in Love Crazy.)

Don't Bother to Knock is available on DVD, and is well worth a viewing. Even if it's not a truly great movie, it's interesting to see three talented actors early in their careers.

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