Defending Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock

Defending Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock
At the time of its release in 1952, Don’t Bother to Knock was intended to launch Marilyn Monroe’s film career into bona fide stardom.

Monroe had several films under her belt, mostly smaller but visible roles, and this drama was to lay the foundation for a fuller career, beyond that of the vacuous blonde type she played so well.

Unfortunately, Monroe’s performance was not received positively.

Bosley Crowther, famous critic for the New York Times, didn’t think Monroe was prepared to undertake a role of Nell, a complicated, mental patient, who is both desperate and delusional.

In his review, he states, “It requires a good deal to play a person who is strangely jangled in the head.”

Monroe, in his opinion, wasn’t up to the job.

Perhaps some of his criticisms were warranted at the time. Crowther didn’t have the benefit of knowing how prepared Monroe actually was for the role. He couldn’t consider Monroe’s family history of mental illness and he could never have foreseen her tragic end.

While Crowther states that a more seasoned actress could have easily taken on the part of Nell, not all seasoned actresses had the personal experience that Monroe had with mental illness. Her mother suffered from schizophrenia. Her uncle committed suicide. Much of Monroe’s young life was a byproduct of mental illness.

That is not to say it was a perfect performance, but she did accomplish what was called for in the role. She created a mysterious and deeply troubled character who fuels the story’s suspense. And she was believable.

Watching her performance nearly seventy years later, and knowing more about the actress herself, the film takes on an eerie quality. Because of this, there are impressive acting gems in her performance that stand out and contribute to her character’s deeply felt, honest, and frightening mental state.

From her first entrance, a dowdily-dressed Monroe carries a quiet, understated persona. She looks like the Marilyn Monroe we know. She speaks like we expect Marilyn Monroe to speak. And yet, watching her closely, there is something more, something unexpected that she delivers.

It’s the little details in her performance that demonstrate that there is more going on than one would presume. The first time Monroe, as Nell, trails off during a story and her eyes glaze over, the audience knows to prepare for something unknown and unusual.

This is a relatively short film, running about an hour and fifteen minutes, and viewers can expect to experience the uncomfortable sensation provided by a top-notch thriller. The audience is informed that the events occur in “real time” adding to the swift intensity of the film.

Watching Monroe in this film is compelling and also heartbreaking. Fans of her musicals may not care for it, but those who appreciate watching a career grow from beginning to end should be fascinated by her performance.

This isn’t one of those films that can be fully grasped by watching a few clips online; the entire film must be viewed to get the full effect. The suspense builds gradually from scene to scene; consequently, one must watch it from the beginning and allow the sequence of events to build the suspense.

The film also stars Richard Widmark and Anne Bancroft in her first film role. For what it is worth, neither received accolades by the Times for their performances in the film.

**I rented this film at my own expense. There are several online sources where you can view the film for for a small fee or free of charge.

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