Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Yes, Marilyn Could Do Drama

"The female race is always cheesing up my life."

Jed (Richard Widmark)

Even though she was before my time, I am a fan of Marilyn Monroe.

My admiration goes beyond her obvious physical appeal. I think she was a talented actress, too, unappreciated during her life and still so decades after her death.

And I thought I had seen all of her movies — until one day a few years ago when I happened to see "Don't Bother to Knock" being televised. I realized I had never seen it before so I watched it. That movie, which premiered 65 years ago today, was definitive proof of talent that did not depend on good looks.

In that sense, I was reminded of Grace Kelly in "The Country Girl."

Like Kelly, Monroe was always beautiful, but there were variations to her beauty. Sometimes she was glamorous; in "Don't Bother to Knock," I guess her beauty was more understated. It would take concentrated effort to mar her beauty, but you could drape her in clothes that were rather plain and that would bring her beauty down a notch or two.

That, I would say, is what they did in "Don't Bother to Knock."

And Monroe reciprocated with a riveting performance.

It was part of her character. At first she came across as shy and demure. Her clothes were plain. Her demeanor was almost unassuming. But that was all deceptive.

Her character wanted to wear nice clothes and expensive jewelry. But she, like so many others then and now, did not feel she could ever have the finer things she desired. Some people turn to lives of crime to gain the things they want in life. When the audience first saw her in "Don't Bother to Knock," Monroe's character was content to take risks but not necessarily to commit crimes. Well, not exactly, but we'll come back to that.

She was Richard Widmark's love interest. He was on the rebound after being jilted by Anne Bancroft, who was the real glamour girl, a sultry lounge singer. Bancroft had had a fling with Widmark, decided it was one of those things and wrote him a Dear John letter. In this case, I guess you'd call it a Dear Jed letter.

Jed came to New York to try to talk Bancroft out of it, but she didn't budge. Back in his hotel room, Jed looked out his window and saw Monroe across the courtyard, wearing clothes and jewelry that belonged to her employers for the evening, an out–of–town couple (Jim Backus and Lurene Tuttle) who hired her to babysit their daughter (Donna Corcoran) while they were attending a banquet downstairs.

Widmark and Monroe agreed to have a liaison in Monroe's room. Widmark was unaware that the young girl was sleeping in the adjacent room until the girl walked in on them.

As the evening progressed, Widmark became more and more aware that Monroe's character was mentally unstable. At one point, he thought Monroe would push the child out an open window — modern audiences would probably be shocked to see no barriers of any kind on upstairs windows — no rails or bars or anything at a time when air conditioning was still a rare luxury and the only relief to be found on a hot night came from open windows.

I'll leave some of the intricacies of the plot for you to discover for yourself, but Monroe's character continued to descend into a mental state in which she was convinced that Widmark was actually her deceased fiance.

She also bound and gagged the child with whom she had been sitting that evening. Turned out she had a history of mental issues. She had been institutionalized after her fiance's death. She had tried to kill herself, too, by slashing her wrists.

"Don't Bother to Knock" was a mostly forgettable movie, I suppose. The characters lacked emotional depth, and there wasn't a lot of context given until near the end (which, I suppose, was typical of film noir).

But Monroe's performance as the psychologically fragile Nell undoubtedly was influenced by Monroe's own experiences with her mother. That alone would make "Don't Bother to Knock" worth watching.

It was Monroe's first truly dramatic effort after appearing in 17 other films, mostly comedies, and it was a few years before the comedies for which Monroe is best remembered — "The Seven–Year Itch" and "Some Like It Hot."

It was Bancroft's debut.

Monroe's wasn't the first film portrayal of a mentally disturbed individual — but seldom has it been as honest.