Film Review: Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)

Also known as: Night Without Sleep, Mischief (working titles)
Release Date: July 18th, 1952 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Roy Ward Baker
Written by: Daniel Taradash
Based on: Mischief by Charlotte Armstrong
Music by: Lionel Newman
Cast: Richard Widmark, Marilyn Monroe, Anne Bancroft, Elisha Cook Jr., Jim Backus, Donna Corcoran, Jeanne Cagney, Lurene Tuttle, Verna Felton

20th Century Fox, 76 Minutes

Review:

“You smell like a cooch dancer!” – Eddie Forbes

This is a really interesting film about mental illness. It came out in the 1950s when there wasn’t as much knowledge about the subject but compared to other films from the time, this one is actually really respectful towards mental health. Honestly, Don’t Bother to Knock is probably one of the best movies of its era to actually try and tackle the issue, as it doesn’t make the character struggling with it into a psychotic nutjob.

The film gives top billing to Richard Widmark but the real star of the picture is Marilyn Monroe, who plays a babysitter that mentally breaks down as the story rolls on. I’ve absolutely got to give Monroe props in this role, as she truly comes across as believable and makes you feel for her on a pretty deep level.

In fact, this is one movie that you can point to when people claim that Monroe was just a pretty face. She handled the material with a sort of grace and respect that transcends the picture. And if I’m being straight here, I’ve never been a massive Monroe fan. But her ability to act in this picture was stupendous and it kind of makes me want to reexamine her other roles.

Additionally, Widmark is superb in his role, as are Anne Bancroft, who I wish had more screen time, and the always entertaining character actor Elisha Cook Jr.

This is a sympathetic and intelligently handled picture where the cast figures out something is off with this girl but they ultimately rally around her to give her the help she desperately needs. It’s hard to say what happens to her after the film but you do leave with the feeling that the core characters in this story will be there to help her heal, as opposed to just sending her to an asylum and being done with her uncontrollable antics.

Directed by Roy Ward Baker, who would go on to do a lot of horror and sci-fi pictures, the film is well shot and it shows that the guy had a real skill that his later work might not have showcased nearly as well. While I enjoy the work he did for Hammer and Amicus, the two horror giants of the UK, this may be the best film of his that I’ve seen from an artistic and technical standpoint.

Don’t Bother to Knock has been a film that has been in my Prime Video queue for a long time. I’m glad that I finally got around to giving it a shot, as I was pleasantly surprised by it on just about every level.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other early ’50s film-noir, as well as other early Marilyn Monroe movies.

Film Review: Pickup On South Street (1953)

Also known as: Pickpocket, Blaze of Glory (working titles)
Release Date: May 27th, 1953 (Boston and Philadelphia)
Directed by: Samuel Fuller
Written by: Samuel Fuller, Dwight Taylor
Music by: Leigh Harline
Cast: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter

20th Century Fox, 80 Minutes

Review:

“I know you pinched me three times and got me convicted three times and made me a three time loser. And I know you took an oath to put me away for life. Well you’re trying awful hard with all this patriotic eye-wash, but get this: I didn’t grift that film and you can’t prove I did! And if I said I did, you’d slap that fourth rap across my teeth no matter what promises you made!” – Skip McCoy

For those that don’t know, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had an interesting working relationship with 20th Century Fox. Hoover allowed the studio access to investigations and files and thought that allowing some “transparency” through a Hollywood lens would make the public more supportive of the FBI under Hoover.

However, this film is what ended that relationship, as Hoover wanted it changed due to what he felt wasn’t a complete condemnation of communism. The studio stuck by writer/director Samuel Fuller and this film was released, unaltered.

Hoover was upset because this has a plot that involves Richard Widmark’s character being involved with passing off a piece of secret film to those bastard Reds. Widmark’s character, regardless of the communist involvement in the plot, seemed unfazed as to who his employer was. And he never really shows any remorse for the communists’ plot that he was a part of and certainly doesn’t have a moment of reflection where he turns over a new leaf. Apparently, this infuriated Hoover but it does seem more genuine and leaving the story as is, was probably for the better, regardless of the political climate of the time. Plus, it makes for an interesting tale that is larger than the movie itself and has thus, elevated this motion picture’s importance in a time when film-noir movies were a dime a dozen and most have been forgotten.

But regardless of all that, this is still a superb noir, carried by the solid perfromance by Widmark, as well as Jean Peters, his gal, and the always stupendous Thelma Ritter.

For the time, Ritter has a death scene here that is really damn dark and makes your heart sink. While I’m a fan of just about everything in this picture, it’s this scene where you really see the great talent of Ritter, as well as the greatness of Samuel Fuller, who picked the music and shot the scene, using fabulous camera work, lighting and cinematography. Granted, he had help in the cinematography department by Joseph MacDonald, who also worked on Panic In the Streets, Niagara, Hell and High Water, The Young Lions, Pepe and The Sand Pebbles.

The story is also engaging and the threats in this feel genuine and real. Despite Hoover’s concerns, this certainly doesn’t paint the Reds in a positive light.

I also have to give props to Jean Peters for how physical she had to get with this role. I’m not sure if they used a double or not and I don’t think that they did, but when she literally gets the crap kicked out of her in her own apartment, it’s absolutely brutal for 1953 standards. Hell, it’s hard to watch for 2019 standards where movie audiences see some pretty violent stuff on a regular basis.

Pickup On South Street will probably always be a footnote in Hollywood history. However, it deserves its recognition in spite of its controversy. It’s a solid picture, lifted up by its players, its director and its cinematographer.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other film-noirs: Night and the City, Gun Crazy, Kiss Me Deadly, Where the Sidewalk Ends and Naked City.

Documentary Review: American Cinema: Film Noir (1995)

Release Date: 1995
Directed by: Jeffrey Schon
Music by: Thomas Wagner
Narrated by: Richard Widmark
Hosted by: John Lithgow

PBS, 54 Minutes

Review:

I have been casually watching episodes of PBS’ documentary television series American Cinema. Since I have been watching a ton of film-noir movies for Noirvember, one of my favorite cinematic celebration months, I had to dig up the episode Film Noir. Luckily, it is streaming on YouTube, as many old PBS documentaries are.

What makes this cool when compared to other film-noir documentaries is that it doesn’t explain away the style or the elements that make noir. It focuses more on talking head interviews of actors, directors and scholars who simply just discuss film-noir. While the interviewees are alone, it still plays more like an open forum of ideas and thoughts on the noir style and its importance in American filmmaking.

It was a really nice touch that Richard Widmark, my choice for a 1950s Joker if ever there was a serious Batman movie made back then, got to narrate this short documentary. I also enjoyed seeing John Lithgow host the episode, even though he is way too young to have been in classic film-noir. But Lithgow is certainly a guy that understands film and the important things in the long history of the art.

Film Noir is one of my favorite episodes of the American Cinema series but then again, I have a strong bias in favor of noir. Ultimately, though, this is a really good educational piece on the style and its significance.

Rating: 8/10

Film Review: Night and the City (1950)

Release Date: June 9th, 1950 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Austin Dempster, William E. Watts
Based on: Night and the City by Gerald Kersh
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cast: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom, Stanislaus Zbyszko, Mike Mazurki

20th Century Fox, 96 Minutes

Review:

“Harry. Harry. You could have been anything. Anything. You had brains… ambition. You worked harder than any 10 men. But the wrong things. Always the wrong things… ” – Mary Bristol

I was glad that I got to catch this on a recent episode of TCM’s Noir Alley. I wasn’t really familiar with Jules Dassin’s work until recently, while delving deep into the vast ocean that is film-noir.

This film, among the seemingly endless noir-scape, stands out, stands strong and hell, it’s got professional wrestling in it: giving Mike Mazurki a character close to who he actually was and providing a great role for wrestling legend (and former world champion) Stanislaus Zbyszko of the famous Zbyszko wrestling family.

The film primarily stars Richard Widmark and man is he a friggin’ entertaining weasel in this. He is also accompanied by one of the queens of film-noir, Gene Tierney. Unfortunately, she isn’t in this film as much as I would have liked because she is truly an enchantress of the silver screen.

Night and the City follows Widmark’s Harry Fabian, a hustling con man type that is always looking for a way to get to the top, regardless of who he has to screw over in the process. Obviously, he’s a man in over his head, barking up all the wrong trees while digging his own eventual grave. When he starts a scheme involving professional wrestlers, he is in deeper water than he can even fathom.

The film takes place in London and was filmed there due to director Jules Dassin moving to the UK after being blacklisted over communist fears. His career still flourished, even if he had to escape Hollywood and Night and the City is a great example of how the director didn’t miss a beat, despite his misfortune during the McCarthy era witch hunts.

Widmark’s performance is tremendous as he traverses through all the twists and turns in the film’s plot. He has a charm and an insane enthusiasm that almost feels like the gangster version of the comic book Joker before he fell into that vat of acid. Hell, he could have been a great Jack Napier and Joker had they made a Batman film in the 1950s with a serious tone.

The highlight of this film for me was seeing the two wrestling legends square off: Mazurki and Zbyszko. Their physical fight in the film was pretty damn realistic and grueling as hell to witness. It was well shot, well executed and certainly effective.

The cinematography was handled by Max Greene, who had a lot of experience with his work on dozens of films before this. His visuals were accompanied by the great music of Franz Waxman. With Dassin’s direction, we had a Holy Trinity of cinematic masters combining their best efforts on a film that should probably be better remembered than it is, at least outside of film-noir fan circles.

Rating: 8.25/10