Oh Marilyn. I know, I know, we all love Marilyn Monroe (or are supposed to) but I’m not going to stray from her simply because she’s so damn popular. The tragic heroine princess to every aspiring starlet or little girl or grown woman is our coffee mugged goddess, so ubiquitous that, I think, we sometimes take her for granted. Especially in her early and later roles (my two favorite periods for Marilyn). From the fresh faced, sublimely natural starlet sporting jeans in Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night to the methody, tired, tragic and lonely lady of John Huston's The Misfits, I find Marilyn’s first and last hopes at proving herself on screen immensely powerful.
Such is the case in Monroe's first starring vehicle, 1952's Don't Bother to Knock. There’s a prophetic sadness permeating her nuanced, fascinating performance, and for a picture of this period, her delusional babysitter (freshly released from an insane asylum) is surprisingly sympathetic. Knowing all we do about the troubled star, it most likely wasn't a stretch for the then-relative newcomer to understand the pathology and despondency of her character Nell, a beautiful young woman burned by love who can't handle the breach between reality and fiction. A film noir of sorts, though not containing enough elements of that genre to be classically considered as such, director Roy Baker's part-thriller, part-character-study is a tense tale with plenty of pathos geared toward Marilyn, who wasn't the full-blown MM superstar yet. As Nell, a mysterious girl who takes on a babysitting job in a hotel where her creepy, sad-sack uncle (Elisha Cook Jr. — who else) works, Monroe enters the picture in plain clothes, dark blonde hair, and little makeup. Though she's no plain-Jane, she looks like a "nice girl" — nice enough for hotel guests the Joneses (played by Jim Backus and Lurene Tuttle) to allow a stranger to watch over their cute little daughter Bunny (Donna Corcoran). After quickly putting the girl to bed (clearly she's not interested in the kid), Nell plays dress-up in Mrs. Jones' fine silk robe, perfume, and diamond jewelry.
Meanwhile, cocky, self-absorbed airline pilot Jedd Towers (the always terrific and personal favorite Richard Widmark) is stinging from rejection after the hotel chanteuse (a young, gorgeous Anne Bancroft) dumps him. Spying the beautiful Nell from his window to hers (which is damn sexy) he finds some new action when the lonely Nell signals him from her room. He comes over for a good time, likes what he sees, and basically puts up with her strange behavior until it gets a little too freaky. A man, even Richard Widmark, can only take so much, and when Nell hangs Bunny out of the hotel window, he starts thinking she might not be worth the tumble. But here’s the poignant part—Nell doesn't really mean any harm. She's just disturbed and frequently suicidal. And here’s a novel idea—she desires a man to take care of her without hitting or hollering at her desire to look gorgeous. She should be normal dammit!
But, why? Why must women have to be so normal? Though suffering from deep seated psychological problems, I sense that it’s this type of "normal" pressure making her crack (the punishing and smarmy Cook Jr. doesn't help either). Monroe portrays these ideas beautifully, so much so, that I wondered how much of her real life was seeping into her performance, it plays so real. I kept wishing that she could just get out of that hotel, doll herself up and have some fun with a man who might understand her. Widmark isn't really the one, even though underneath his smirk and swagger, he’s essentially a good heart. Interestingly, however, the moral of the story comes at Nell's expense — Widmark’s Jedd becomes a better person by not giving into temptation with a supposed psycho. Poor Nell, and poor Marilyn. In real life, most men wouldn't so sensitively resist.