Sunday, February 13, 2011

Noir City Northwest: They Won’t Believe Me (1947)/Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)

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The storms outside were no match for the turmoil that raged during Noir City night two.

Host Eddie Muller branded They Won’t Believe Me as one of the most unfairly neglected noirs of the 1940s. It’s so neglected that I’d never heard of it before. A brilliantly cast against type Robert Young takes an homme fatale turn as a cad who has married well (to social X-ray progenitor Rita Johnson) but still fools around on the side. First with Jane Greer, then with Susan Hayward. Johnson, every bit as warped as her husband, simply moves them to a new house in a new town whenever she learns of his dalliances. Young tells his tale of woe – three women, you poor bastard? – from the witness stand during his trial for murder, but who exactly did he kill? (I’m not an attorney, but here’s some legal advice: when on trial for your life, do not wear a light-colored suit.) The script, by one of my screenwriting heroes Jonathan Latimer, does such a deft job of slipping the twisted sexual psychology past the censors that it’s disappointing when some of the second act plotting gets muddled. All is saved by a humdinger of an ending, compromised though it may be. As is typical of films produced by Hitchcock protégé Joan Harrison, you end up feeling sympathy for all of the players no matter how loony they are.

Don’t Bother to Knock opens with airline pilot Jed Towers (Richard Widmark) getting the heave-ho from his hotel singer girlfriend. But Jed spots another potential conquest in a nearby room and decides not to waste any time. Little does he know that Nell Forbes (Marilyn Monroe) isn’t a wealthy hotel guest but an emotionally devastated young woman working as a babysitter, one who has little interest in tending to her charge. Monroe established herself as a dramatic actress in this film, playing the extremes of her character with skill; her vulnerability breaks your heart even as you genuinely fear for the little girl temporarily in Nell’s care. As good as this movie is I find it tough to watch, because Monroe’s fragility here is so hard to separate from what we know about the actress in real life. Anne Bancroft makes her screen debut as the chanteuse, her earthy sensuality providing a bracing contrast to Monroe’s damaged availability. Jed doesn’t deserve either woman, but together they make him a better man.