In this New York hotel is a cross section of life, including one guest who is there nursing his ill-feelings over his recent break up with his girlfriend. He is airline pilot Jed Towers (Richard Widmark) who sits in a room rereading a letter she has sent him, and listening to her sing in her capacity as a lounge performer downstairs - one of the channels on the room's radio allows this. Although Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft) has detailed her reasons for breaking it off with Jed, he shows his disdain for this state of affairs by ripping up the letter and dropping the pieces out of the window, but across the way in the room directly opposite there is a middle aged couple, the Joneses (Jim Backus and Lurene Tuttle) seeking a babysitter...
No, they don't choose Richard Widmark for that role, they chose Marilyn Monroe, or rather Marilyn Monroe's strenuous efforts to prove she was more than just a pretty face and could really act. She played Nell Forbes, niece of the elevator operator Eddie (Elisha Cook Jr), who he has invited to the hotel as a favour to the Joneses so she may look after their young daughter Bunny (Donna Corcoran) who just needs a story read to her and she'll settle down for the evening. Or that's the idea, but by the end of the night it'll be Nell who needs calming down, for the young woman is not in her right mind, as we discover over the course of a relatively short film that plays out in real time, that is we watch events as they happen without jumping forward to the next hour or day.
What this indicated was Don't Bother to Knock was your rare opportunity to see a creepy Marilyn Monroe; she wasn't playing the villain, exactly, there were not really any bad guys here, it was more a character piece that developed thriller tendencies as it moved along. Monroe was painfully aware that she was not taken seriously as an actress by the tastemakers of the day, and regarded the part of Nell as a riposte to the naysayers, yet it made an odd match with her breathy delivery and glamorous looks, slightly distracting when you could tell she was putting her heart and soul into portraying psychological maladjustment but remained the Marilyn familiar from plenty more, lighter movies where she could demonstrate her flair for comedy.
She never tried this again, not going as far as she did here, perhaps recognising menace wasn't really her forte, but you can understand she was more interested in conveying a sympathy for Nell, whose loss of her boyfriend in an aeroplane accident a few years before has tipped her over the edge of sanity. She still bears the scars of a suicide attempt on her wrists, but the mental scars run a lot deeper and when she is left to her own devices in the hotel room after putting Bunny to bed she tries to lose herself in fantasy, dressing up in Mrs Jones's clothes and jewellery and dabbing on her perfume. When she notices the forlorn, hard-drinking Jed across the way, she invites him over with come hither gestures, and before she knows it she has caught him on the rebound from Lyn (Bancroft making her debut here).
But Nell cannot tell the truth, so spins yarns about what she is doing there, inadvertently trapping a bunch of folks in her lies so that before long she has whomped Pete over the head (such was the regular peril of being Cook) and well and truly freaked Jed out, who begins to find the humanity Lyn accused him of lacking through his compassion for the troubled Nell. There were still unsettling moments such as the one where we see into Bunny's room and realise she's not asleep but is actually bound and gagged on the bed, but mostly the fear we are meant to find for Nell is tempered by a social conscience the film appears to want to bring across for the mentally ill - we're in no doubt that Nell needs psychiatric help, though the way the script has it, coupled with Monroe's sense of hopelessness in the character, we're not sure she will ever be cured. Therefore you couldn't really say Don't Bother to Knock was particularly entertaining, but director Roy Ward Baker kept things sympathetic even when the effect was more a strange, bleak anxiety than excitement.
Reliable British director who worked his way up from teaboy to assistant to Alfred Hitchcock to overseeing his own hit projects from the 1940s to the 1970s. Making his debut with The October Man, he continued with Morning Departure, Don't Bother To Knock, Inferno, The One That Got Away and what is considered by many to be the best Titanic film, A Night To Remember.