Monday, April 29, 2019

Mischief (Book) (1950)

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
Lyn Lesley

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.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)

July 18, 1952, release date
Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Screenplay by Daniel Taradash
Based on the novel Mischief by Charlotte Armstrong
Music by Lionel Newman
Edited by George A. Gittens
Cinematography by Lucien Ballard

Richard Widmark as Jed Towers
Marilyn Monroe as Nell Forbes
Anne Bancroft as Lyn Lesley
Donna Corcoran as Bunny Jones
Jeanne Cagney as Rochelle
Lurene Tuttle as Ruth Jones
Elisha Cook Jr. as Eddie Forbes
Jim Backus as Peter Jones
Verna Felton as Emma Ballew
Willis B. Bouchey as Joe, the bartender
Don Beddoe as Mr. Ballew

Distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Produced by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation

This blog post about Don’t Bother to Knock is my entry for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s 2019 Spring Blogathon: Femmes/Hommes Fatale of Film Noir. Click here for the complete list of participants and links to their entries.

Marilyn Monroe might seem like an easy choice for a femme fatale. After all, Monroe’s public image is based almost entirely on sex appeal. But her performance as Nell Forbes in Don’t Bother to Knock is more nuanced, which is exactly what makes it so interesting. Nell Forbes wants to be the femme fatale, but she is a much more than an ordinary femme fatale.

Monroe’s entrance in Don’t Bother to Knock is inauspicious, even as a main character. Richard Widmark gets top billing and Monroe’s name appears under his, but neither one of them opens the film. That job is left to Anne Bancroft, who plays Richard Widmark’s girlfriend Lyn Lesley. Lyn is the McKinley Hotel’s nightclub singer, and the film opens with her talking to Joe, the bartender in the nightclub. Lyn tells Joe that she has broken it off with her boyfriend, even though he seemed to be the one. The film then cuts to Richard Widmark’s character, Jed Towers, in a sequence that reveals he is the jilted boyfriend. In his room at the McKinley Hotel, he reads Lyn’s breakup letter, and viewers see the first few lines, so they know that he is the one Lyn discussed with the bartender. When he rips the letter and drops the pieces out his window, viewers can see a woman putting the finishing touches on her evening outfit in the background, in the window across the courtyard. This is a clever shot because it is Mrs. Ruth Jones that viewers see, not Marilyn Monroe. Not yet.

Eddie Forbes works as a bellhop in the McKinley Hotel, and viewers meet him next. He brings hotel guests down to the lobby in the elevator, and he spots someone he knows there: Only then does the film cut to Marilyn Monroe, playing Nell Forbes, Eddie’s niece, entering the hotel through its revolving front doors. Her entrance is about four and half minutes into the film. She looks around uncertainly, getting her bearings. Eddie arranged this meeting because he sees a chance to help Nell by getting her a job working as a babysitter for the hotel’s guests. Her first job is babysitting Bunny Jones while her parents attend a formal dinner in the hotel. Nell wants the job, but children do not interest her much.

After Bunny Jones goes to bed, Nell is on her own. She eats a couple of chocolate candies out of a candy box, even though Bunny offered some to her and she insisted that she doesn’t eat chocolate. She is much more interested in perusing Ruth Jones’s possessions once she is left alone in the Jones’s suite. Nell tries her perfume, then goes through her jewelry box and tries on a bracelet and a pair of earrings. Nell then goes through Ruth Jones’s closet and changes into a kimono and a pair of slippers.

Jed Towers is on the rebound after having just been rebuffed by Lyn Lesley. He wants company, and back in his hotel room, he notices Nell across the courtyard. By this time, Nell has transformed herself, forsaking her plain cloth dress for some of Ruth Jones’s finery. He attracts Nell’s attention from the window of his hotel room across the courtyard. When Nell has second thoughts about continuing their interaction, he figures out her room number from a floor plan of the hotel and calls her. Nell isn’t interested at first, but she decides that maybe Jed is worth a second chance, and she entices him from her window by signaling via the venetian blinds. Jed goes to Nell’s room looking for the promise of a good time.

Jed Towers is a World War II veteran, and both historical and film noir convention would make him the one suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it is really Nell herself who is suffering most acutely from PTSD. It is implied that her boyfriend Philip died at least three years before the events in the film, and Nell is having trouble moving on. Jed is a veteran pilot who seems to have survived the war unscathed, although his girlfriend Lyn complains that he is perennially cynical and doesn’t want to become attached to people in general and to her in particular. It is the reason Lyn gives Jed for refusing to see him anymore. Lyn is describing someone who may be experiencing some residual effects of trauma, in her boyfriend Jed’s case, the trauma of war.

One of the hallmarks of film noir is the overwhelming feeling of angst, which can include PTSD, alienation, loneliness, grief, and so on. The narrative in Don’t Bother to Knock takes the usual storyline a step further: Jed, the wartime fighter pilot, may have a relatively mild case of PTSD, and Nell, whose boyfriend died in a plane crash in the Pacific, suffers from so much grief, depression, and alienation from her family that she has been hospitalized in the past. She reveals her state of mind in brief non sequiturs. A conversation with Jed triggers her symptoms because he is, like her boyfriend Philip was, a pilot. The memories that come flooding back during this conversation overwhelm her, as viewers see in the following conversation between Nell and Jed:
Nell: “You’re a pilot.”
Jed: “That’s right. Anything strange about that?”
Nell: “Yes. That’s strange. Did you fly a bomber during the war?”
Jed: “Who didn’t?”
Nell: “You came home and you’d lost step. You didn’t have any plans.”
Jed: “Well, I thought of becoming a financier. See, I was broke, so that made it a little tough—”
Nell: “You didn’t have any profession. You said, ‘Why not do what I’ve been doing—flying?’”
Jed: “Yeah, Something like that.”
Nell: “‘There’s money in cargo from the States to the islands.’ You crashed . . . in the water.”
Jed: “I’ve cracked up a couple of times, water and land—”
Nell: “In the ocean in ’46, on the way to Hawaii. But you weren’t killed! You were only lost!”
Jed: “Hey, wait a minute. It was in Lake Michigan. My number one caught fire and I had to—”
Nell: “You were rescued! You came back!”
Jed: “Well, why get so excited about it?”

Nell and Jed flirt with one another at first. But Nell starts telling lies to hide the fact that she is really working, babysitting for a child who is supposed to be asleep in the next room, and her conversation with Jed only adds to his confusion. He wants to leave, and Nell begs him to stay. He tells her, “You bother me. I can’t figure you out. You’re silk on one side and sandpaper on the other.” When he tries to open the door to the hotel room, Jed notices the scars on Nell’s wrists. Nell describes her symptoms to Jed:
Nell: “I did it with a razor. My father’s.”
Jed: “You did that to yourself?”
Nell: “When Philip was given up for lost.”
Jed: “Your husband?”
Nell: [shakes her head no] “I was in another hotel room, once. The night before he flew out over the ocean—the last time—he said we’d be married when he came back. I’d phone him once in a while. So you see why I want to stay. It’s so pretty here.”

Jed is in a bind. He wants to leave so he can catch Lyn at the end of her set in the hotel’s nightclub, but Nell can’t bear to part with him again: again because she is confusing Jed with her dead boyfriend Philip. When he does leave, Nell is despondent, and this is the point in the film when her problems become more serious and more evident to others, including strangers. She’s not just a liar and a thief. She is angry with Bunny for what she thinks is the child’s deliberate attempts to interfere with her pursuit of love, so she ties her up and leaves her alone on the bed. When Ruth Jones returns to the hotel suite to check on her daughter, she starts a physical fight with Nell. Nell fights back, so she’s guilty of assault and battery, too.

Jed is the one who comes to Nell’s aid. It seems that, from his own experiences and observations and from his brief time with Nell, he would rather give her the benefit of the doubt. He knows that she has suffered and isn’t always rational. He realizes that she finds it difficult to face the truth some of the time and that these fluctuations between reality and wishful distortion can make her unpredictable and difficult. It’s a marked change for him. With all the evidence of Nell’s wrongdoing, he is still willing to give her a chance.

This twist makes the film’s narrative rather unique and adds the element of surprise, which is something that I always enjoy in any story, in print or on film. If I have any complaint all about the film, it is about the ending. It is a little quick, a little too tidy, but that seems to be more the fault of the screenwriting than of Richard Widmark’s, Anne Bancroft’s, and, of course, Marilyn Monroe’s talents. But it is minor complaint: The screenplay was adapted from Charlotte Armstrong’s novel Mischief, which I have read. This is one instance where the changes made to the plot make the film the superior version—by far.

Marilyn Monroe plays a very complicated femme fatale in Don’t Bother to Knock. She understands that Jed Towers is attracted to her, and she uses that understanding to invite him to her hotel room. But it becomes obvious that Nell is a damaged soul who cannot find a place for herself in life and who carries despair and regret wherever she goes. Nell has many layers, and Marilyn Monroe is up to the task of showing all of those many layers and Nell’s many complications.