Shooting Star

DBPSTR

She’s not what you’d expect.  Marilyn Monroe is so sad, so forlorn and affecting in 1952’s Don’t Bother to Knock, that her performance here might stay longer with you than those in her other, more famous, more happy films.  That ‘glow’ she had in front of the camera, that sparkle and giddy glamour—none of that hits you in this film.  The mood is not only noir, it’s noir with a dank, dire feel.  Like that shudder you get when vanishing into the darkness of a tunnel.

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Being this is Marilyn Monroe, we’re tempted—at least I was—to read something else into her appearance here:  Perhaps a glimpse into the dark side of Monroe’s stardom, those behind-the-scenes stories we’ve all heard—the anxieties, the doubts, the crumbling confidence and meltdowns.  Her acting here seems so godawful honest, it’s like watching an x-ray of a disease come to life.

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Supposedly Monroe was cast in this part, that of an emotionally disturbed babysitter threatening a child she’s minding in a hotel room, by her studio, 20th-Century Fox, to ‘prove’ she could act.  One might (snidely) ask if Monroe was acting here or just playing herself.  I think she’s sincerely giving a performance, a fine, touching one, and no one need condescend to her for it.  But Monroe was an extraordinarily insecure person and maybe that bled through into her acting here.  She seemed to have some sort of passive-aggressive thing going on with her studio, which was undoubtedly trying to exploit her, as Monroe had been exploited all her life.  Hence the on-set acting coach, the lateness, the constantly blown lines and retakes, the pieced-together footage.  Poor Monroe couldn’t help it, I suppose.  What compensated for it all was that ‘something’ she had when onscreen.  That made all the difference.

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Monroe has something else going on in DBTK.  She plays her role with subdued pathos—I can’t recall if she ever raised her voice.  And she performs against conventional movie madness.  She doesn’t ‘act’ hysteria; she doesn’t scream or throw herself against walls or look bug-eyed or tear her hair.  She instead…dissolves, is how I’d phrase it.  Her character falls apart incrementally, the way a slow thaw dismembers a snowman.  Her eyes go foggy, her voice gets dull and drony, she exhales need.  When Monroe’s babysitter gets angry at little Donna Corcoran, the child she’s watching, her voice gets softer.  And when she drifts off into her private, mad world, her eyes get heavy, sad, and sightless, as if weighed down by memories she doesn’t want to keep.  Or she smiles; a slight, almost-not-there smile, but enough for us to understand—quietly, eerily—the silent hell within this character.

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Monroe’s gift, as with all the great film stars, was her instinct for the camera.  She seemed to know, telepathically, what would register onscreen, without exaggerated effort.  Hence I think she understood, in her gut, that she didn’t need to go big to be mad.  By drawing inwards, by getting low and soft and secretive, Monroe pulls us into this young woman’s strange fantasy life.  That may be what critics and fans mean by her ‘genius,’ that understanding of the camera.  When your face fills the huge screen, you can pull in, you can pitch low and inside.  So Monroe’s mad girl doesn’t charge us like a raging mustang.  Instead, she seems physically to shrink from us, vanishing onscreen like an approached horizon.  Compare her to two other actors in this film, Elisha Cook Jr. and Richard Widmark, who both project, loud and long (Cook is especially stagy, telegraphing like Western Union).  Whereas Monroe is just there.  The moment she enters she exists, without fanfare, a seemingly shy, hesitant girl on her first job.  Only gradually, as in life, does she reveal who and what she is.

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Monroe’s first appearance in the film is surprising—the actress we now associate with Technicolor glamour looks so dowdy.  She’s wearing a cheap dress and hat, flat shoes, and little make-up.  Although it’s what you’d expect of her working-class character, it’s still seems surprisingly honest for a Hollywood movie of that time, especially one highlighting, as in its trailer, a rising star.  Per wardrobe test shots, this drab look was planned for the movie, but you see how Monroe uses this feature—how her character lights up when she puts on an expensive robe and earrings (belonging to Corcoran’s mother) and looks at herself in the mirror, how she softly, gradually glows.  Was this the ‘Marilyn’ process, or part of it, as her friends explained about her:  That she could choose to ‘become’ the Marilyn-Monroe persona, turning it on like the gas?  The effect is magical and you realize, suddenly, what a pretty girl this babysitter is.  And you wonder why this pretty girl is so alone.

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The movie is surprising, and honest, in other ways.  One shot shows, in close-up, scar marks on the babysitter’s wrists, signaling she once attempted suicide.  A bit of dialogue has her admitting she spent a night with her pilot boyfriend in a hotel, just before he flew off and crashed and died in the war.  Then there’s the tawdry pick-up scenario between the sitter and Widmark’s character, he viewing her as a diversion, nothing more.  And there’s the terrifying explicitness of how the babysitter ties up the child, the camera passing, pitilessly, over the little girl’s bound and wrapped body, abrading our eyes with this detail.  Monroe’s character is clearly dangerous, no softening it here.  But Monroe creates sympathy for this woman who would try to harm a child—she seems so much a child herself.  She’s like a kitten that doesn’t realize it scratches, so entangled is she in her strange, exclusive world.  One that outside normality can’t penetrate.

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I like how the film doesn’t foreshadow its terrors, how it lays off the trowel.  The sitter’s fragile psyche is conveyed in small gestures, as when Cook, as her uncle, seems overly solicitous of his niece’s welfare, or when, after refusing some proffered chocolate (claiming she never eats any), she wolfs down several pieces once left alone.  The director, Roy Baker, keeps the action clear and uncluttered, so you always know where the story is ‘placed,’ where you are with the scenes and characters.  Though the film starts slowly, I got so caught up in the criss-crossing stories (Widmark, Monroe, the parents, the child, the hotel staff) that I didn’t realize it was taking place in ‘real time’ during its 70-odd minutes.  And by the time you grasp what’s happening with the sitter, you’re no longer aware of the film’s pacing.  You only know you don’t dare relax.

Before DBTK, Roy Baker’s career had been in low-budget British thrillers (The October Man, in which mentally disturbed John Mills is suspected of murder), but he does what I call low-key bravura work in DBTK.  The film’s set piece, in which Widmark in his hotel room spots, and tries to attract the attention of, Monroe in her room across an open courtyard, plays, beautifully, with layers and sections of space within the film frame, and with intersecting points of view.  Widmark looks out his window to see Monroe framed in hers; he tries to signal to her; she responds by closing and opening two sets of Venetian blinds, variously obstructing and revealing herself.  Baker cuts between close-ups of Widmark’s yearning face and long shots of Monroe’s body seen in the window (a frame within the film’s frame) over Widmark’s shoulder.  Then he cuts to Monroe in her room, as she gazes out her window at Widmark, a mirror image of him.  It’s as if we’re seeing both the characters and their secret fantasies of each other (and of themselves), happening both at once, yet isolated and unreachable across space.

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We understand these characters are inhabiting different rooms, yet on the two-dimensional screen they’re also pressed together, into one, overall frame—the pair are united by cinematic technique, even if kept apart by (diegetic) space and distance.  The sequence creates, in filmic terms, the provocation and obstruction of desire, with Monroe a dream figure, shifting in and out of Widmark’s (and our) hungry gaze.  She tantalizes him (and us) with her denial and presentation of herself, a glimmering, longed-for vision, teasingly out of his reach, yet reified when, briefly, she steps up boldly to the window to exhale a breathy “Hello…”.  It’s that one moment, that one spoken word, when this timid, diffident girl sounds unexpectedly confident, sexy, and alluring; and it’s that one moment in which ‘Marilyn-Monroe,’ the star persona, the ultimate cinematic figure of film fantasy, makes her appearance in this film.  Maybe this was the moment when audiences witnessed the birth of an icon.

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Monroe seems so raw and tremulous, yet so watchable in this movie, it’s astonishing to realize how long was her incubation period.  She was no overnight phenomenon.  Per IMDB, she started in films in 1947, appearing in over 20 movies before she became a major star.  In 1952, the same year as DBTK, four other of her films (in supporting roles) were released:  O. Henry’s Full House, We’re Not Married, Monkey Business, and Clash By Night.  All but the last were comedies (and in Clash By Night she’s a ‘normal’ character).  Just a year later, in 1953, Monroe made her big breakthrough in the Technicolor Niagara, How to Marry A Millionaire, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and became a bona fide mega-star.  But not until her last completed film, The Misfits (in B&W, like DBTK), would Monroe again essay such a vulnerable, torn-apart woman.  Though that later film had—at least in the film—a happy ending for her character.

DBTK’s own ending is anything but happy.  It leaves the fate of Monroe’s character uncertain, ambiguous; yet, again, as with all of Monroe’s performance in the film, surprising.  Rescued by Widmark from another suicide attempt, Monroe doesn’t do the expected bit, bursting into tears to signal emotional release.  Instead, she subsides into apathy.  She lets her eyes go dark and flat, like a tired child’s, as she gazes, pleadingly, at Widmark:  “People who love each other…”, she says, letting her voice fade.  Those final, sad, heartfelt words—are they a statement, a question, an unfinished thought?  The line recalls Blanche DuBois’s ending words from A Streetcar Named Desire, of her ambivalent dependence on the kindness of strangers.  Monroe herself would later enact the role of Blanche in an Actor’s Studio workshop, and DBTK’s ending almost plays like an echo to Streetcar’s final scene, as the sitter is led off also by strangers (here, two policemen) into darkness.

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Soon after DBTK, Monroe would become the biggest, glitteriest movie star in the world.  She was famous, adored, idolized, desired; she was a comet lighting the skies, an onscreen shimmer of blue, peach, and gold.  Yet in a mere ten years her giddy gaiety would be gone, vanished into her own, unending dark tunnel.  A fadeout so strange, heartbreaking, and sad, and so unkind, indeed.

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BONUS CLIP:  Marilyn Monroe signals a come-on to Richard Widmark in a scene from Don’t Bother To Knock.  Note the pared-down dialogue (Widmark’s “Two minutes” sounds almost like a threat), the use of natural sound, and the creepy interplay between Monroe and Elisha Cook at the beginning.  Note also Roy Baker’s confident hold on a take (such as when Monroe is at the blinds), the sharp editing, and Monroe’s own focus during her shots.

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