Mischief, by Charlotte Armstrong
In Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1950s, edited by Sarah Weinman
New York, NY: The Library of America, 2015
Mischief originally published in 1950
List of main characters:
Peter O. Jones
Ruth O. Jones
Bunny O. Jones, the Jones’s daughter
Eddie Munro, elevator operator at the Hotel Majestic
Nell Munro, Eddie’s niece
Jed Towers, hotel guest
This story is really a novella: It’s only 133 pages long in the collection in which I found it. Mischief is the basis for the film noir Don’t Bother to Knock. I saw the film first and had high hopes for reading the novel. It does happen every once in a great while, however, that the film version hits all the right spots and the novel version doesn’t hit as many.
In this case, the screenwriter, Daniel Taradash, for Don’t Bother to Knock made all the right decisions in the changes made to Charlotte Armstrong’s story. I suspect that these decisions didn’t begin with Taradash; I imagine Marilyn Monroe, cast as Nell Forbes in the film (the character is Nell Munro in the novel), meant that turning the attention on her character was the real reason behind it all. It led to a better story on film.
Click here for my blog post about Don’t Bother to Knock, which I wrote for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s 2019 Spring Blogathon: Femmes/Hommes Fatale of Film Noir. You can still read all the entries for the blogathon by clicking here.
(This blog post about the novel Mischief contains spoilers about the novel and the film Don’t Bother to Knock.)
◊ The narrative in the novel starts with the Jones family, not with Lyn Lesley, as in the film version. The stories of the Joneses (Peter, Ruth, and their daughter Bunny); Nell Munro, Bunny’s babysitter; and Nell’s uncle Eddie Munro are intertwined from the beginning. Jed Towers is introduced from the beginning, but he is only a guest in the same hotel at that point. Lyn Lesley is introduced later, when Jed meets her for their date. It’s not clear until the end of Chapter 4 and all of Chapter 5 that Jed Towers and Lyn Lesley are part of the Jones/Munro story, too.
◊ The film version presents Nell much more sympathetically. She gets to tell her story of loss and grief to Jed Towers, who begins to feel some compassion for her in the film. Nell suffered a nervous breakdown after the death of her boyfriend Philip, and she tells Jed about the night that her boyfriend Philip was given up for lost at sea.
◊ In the novel, Nell is responsible for the accidental death of her parents in a fire she supposedly set while sleepwalking. The implication is that she might have gotten away with their murder.
◊ Nell attacks Bunny in both the novel and the film, and Bunny’s mother, Ruth Jones, interrupts her and fights her until Jed shows up. In the novel, Jed drags Nell, by grabbing her hair, off Ruth; in the film, Jed intervenes just enough to keep the two women from fighting any further and really hurting one another.
◊ In the novel, Jed is shot by the hotel detective while Jed is still holding on to Nell because Eva Ballew, another hotel guest, believes Nell’s story that Jed attacked her. Nell concocts this story in the film, too. It leads to a very brief hunt for Jed, but nothing comes of it once he joins the search for Nell.
◊ Nell is taken away by the hotel detective Perrin in the novel, not by the police. In the film, Nell is allowed to leave the hotel when she is ready, followed by the police officers.
◊ The novel ends in the Jones’s two adjoining hotel rooms, not in the hotel lobby, as it does in the film. In the novel, the characters are left alone and disillusioned after Nell is taken away.
◊ The film ends with a focus on Nell, Lyn, and Jed in the hotel lobby and some hope for the future. In the film, Jed vows to stand by Nell and help her in her recovery. His decision restores Lyn’s faith in the future of her relationship with Jed.
The shifts in the narrative in the film version allows the story to focus on Nell as a troubled character and on Lyn and Jed’s relationship. Viewers of the film have several characters to relate to. I found the characters in the novel to be much more distant and unlikable. Armstrong’s novel is well written: I have no problem with the technical aspects of the writing and the narrative. It did occur to me, however, that the brevity of the narrative is a plus because it was so difficult to spend time with the characters!
I enjoyed the film version (Don’t Bother to Knock) so much more. Lyn Lesley is a stronger character in the film. She is in control of her emotions and knows what she wants. Her relationship with Jed is on much more of an equal footing. In the film, both Jed and Nell are also much more sympathetic. Jed undergoes a transformation in the film, and he finally sees what Lyn means to him and how he can give her what she needs. Nell has a more sympathetic back story and she gets to tell it herself to Jed. She is treated more fairly by Jed and others around her because they (and the viewers) get to see her as a human being deserving of help rather than as a person to be taken away and locked up.
I can recommend the film Don’t Bother to Knock wholeheartedly, the novel not quite as much. Still, I am very glad I read it because it is the basis of the film. I found it fascinating how the narrative could be reshaped into something that I enjoyed more on film.