I’ve been thinking about what “disreputable art” means in a time when nerds, fans, and geeks have won a kind of cultural hegemony. It was different when the Cultural Gutter was founded in 2003, before Iron Man (2008) launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Force awakened, and the game of thrones was played on tv. Now we gaze out at an ever-growing corporate entertainment franchise monoculture* and wonder what “disreputable art” means in this landscape. Do we focus on what’s overlooked now–on what was the reputable art that superhero comics and science fiction were measured against? Are we thinking about what might be forgotten and derided by consumers of everything the Mouse produces? So let’s talk about some disreputable art, what might be a trifecta of disreputability in this new landscape: Charlotte Armstrong‘s 1950 “domestic suspense” novel, Mischief; Roy Ward Baker‘s underappreciated film adaptation, Don’t Bother To Knock (1952); and Marilyn Monroe, not the woman or the icon, but her acting that’s often similarly underappreciated in favor of the bombshell fantasy she created for her audience.
In both Mischief and Don’t Bother To Knock, Ruth O. Jones (Lurene Tuttle in the film) has traveled to New York with her husband, newspaper editor Peter O. Jones (Jim Backus), and nine-year-old daughter Bunny (Donna Corcoran). Peter is giving a speech at an award banquet. Their babysitter has canceled so when the elevator operator, Eddie (Elisha Cook, Jr.), suggests his niece Nell (Marilyn Monroe) for the job, they take him up on his offer. After all, they’ll only be downstairs in the hotel banquet room and Bunny is old enough for her own connecting room. But Nell is struggling with something. She is remote and sometimes even seems sly–but nothing overt enough for Ruth to send Nell away. Once the Joneses have left for the ceremony, Nell tries to discharge her babysitting duties as quickly as possible. She is irritated by Bunny. After warning Bunny not to make noise or cry, Nell returns to the Jones’ room and begins wearing Ruth’s peignoir, perfume, make-up and jewelry.
Meanwhile, commercial pilot Jed Towers (Richard Widmark) is serious about Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft), but Lyn is put off by Jed’s lack of concern with other people. The specifics are different in the novel and the film. In Mischief, Jed refuses to give a homeless man some money, claiming the man has “a racket.” They fight about it over dinner. Lyn calls out Jed’s “cheap cynicism” and his disregard of others. In the film, Jed finds Lyn in the hotel bar where she works as a singer. It seems like they’ve already had their fight about Jed’s cyncism and Jed (Richard Widmark) is trying to convince Lyn (Anne Bancroft) to put it aside for “a laugh, a kiss, and a drink.” Lyn tells Jed he lacks “an understanding heart,” and she doesn’t want to see a man who doesn’t care about anyone but himself. She also tells him, in an excellent line, “I’m not angry, just furious.” And so Jed furiously decides he’ll have a date with someone else. In both the novel and the film, Jed returns to his hotel room and sees Nell in the Joneses’ room across the courtyard. Jed calls Nell and invites himself over. Once Jed’s there, though, he’s not so sure, but any ambivalence Nell felt is gone. She’s not just pretending she has a different life with Ruth’s things anymore. And Nell’s not letting anything interfere with her desires and delusions—especially not a nine-year-old girl.
Where the film explicitly discusses Jed’s heart, the novel discusses Ruth’s. At Eddie and Ruth’s first knock on the hotel room door, “Something squeezed Ruth’s heart, quickly, and as quickly let it go, so that it staggered.” (12) Ruth feels something is off about Nell from the start, but has trouble trusting herself. In Don’t Bother To Knock, absent a narrator, we don’t know Ruth’s thoughts. And the film focuses on Jed and Nell (Marilyn Monroe), more than on Ruth (Lurene Tuttle) sitting at the banquet table smiling and celebrating while something about Nell squeezes her heart. I like that in both the book and the film, Ruth physically comes to Bunny’s rescue. In the book, though, the fight between them is much more visceral–an action-packed account of a middle-aged woman kicking, slashing, and biting her way to victory. Jed comes to her aid, but do believe that Ruth had Nell licked, like she says.
Mischief is often classified as “domestic suspense” or a “domestic thriller”–thrillers set in the intimacy of the home and the family–the traditional and archetypal domains of women. And they get their suspense from threats to these spheres or to the dangers to or caused by the emotional intimacy of relationships. No matter how you feel about it as a label,** “domestic suspense” is not entirely reputable compared to “psychological thriller,” “noir,” “hardboiled,” or just plain, “crime fiction.” Regardless of the genre or subgenre you want to assign Mischief, Charlotte Armstrong was a master of mystery and suspense. She wrote dozens of novels as well as short stories and poems. Armstrong also wrote episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents: “Sybilla,” directed by Ida Lupino; “The Five-Forty Eight,” an adaptation of a John Cheever story; and, “Across the Threshold.” She also adapted “Incident at a Corner” for an episode of Startime directed by Alfred Hitchcock. And she had another novel adapted into Michael Curtiz’ The Unsuspected (1945). Armstrong was tremendously popular in her time. I expect it was unimaginable that she would be forgotten—any more than it’s imaginable that omnipresent suspense novelist Gillian Flynn or even stalwart support of the English language publishing industry Nora Roberts under any of her pen names could be forgotten. But, like so many other popular women, bipoc and queer writers, Charlotte Armstrong almost was.
There is an interesting intersection here–an author popular in her time who has been widely forgotten and Marilyn Monroe, an actor who became so embedded in the role of “Marilyn” that her acting itself can become invisible. “Marilyn” was a character that her public wanted to–and often still wants to–believe in. Some of this plays out now both in how people view and talk about Monroe’s acting and in how fans very much do not want to separate characters from the actors who play them in, say, superhero franchises. In Monroe’s case, though, the demands that she be what people wanted so they could suspend their disbelief were far more extreme, limiting, and tragic. On a small scale, it meant that her acting is rarely acknowledged or she is accused of having a limited range. As if “Marilyn” herself were not a role. In Don’t Bother To Knock she takes on a role and performs in ways that might be more difficult for audiences to accept from Monroe later–maybe even just one year later after the release of Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953) and How To Mary A Millionaire (1953). In Don’t Bother To Knock, Monroe use elements that she would use in other films, but for a much different effect. Her breathy voice, her carefully controlled affect and physicality all create an almost eerie detachment.
And her (and Armstrong’s) Nell is not what she might be in other films—especially other films that might cast Monroe banking on her sex appeal. Nell is not a nymphomaniac who just needs the love of a good man. Her Nell is dangerously self-centered and malicious, but tragically damaged and self-destructive. Monroe’s nell is layered. She brings a vulnerability and deep, desperate despair to Nell that both makes Jed’s sympathy for her believable and creates more tension when she becomes vicious or threatening. And Monroe’s accomplishment here, like Armstrong, Mischief, and Don’t Bother To Knock, deserve more attention outside of Monroe, noir, and scholarly film circles.
Don’t Bother To Knock is available online for viewing. “Crime Lady” Sarah Weinman has helped recover Charlotte Armstrong’s work and you can read Mischief in Weinman’s Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1950s (New York: Library of America, 2015). It includes novels by Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Millar, and Dolores Hitchens. There is also a Women Crime Writers box set that includes a second volume of novels from the 1940s. Maybe your library has it! Check out the associated resources here.
*Disney is to art what Monsanto is to agriculture, both good and bad.
** I am not a fan.
“We are strangers,” Carol Borden said darkly. “Whom do we know? One—if you’re lucky. Not many more. Looks like we’ve got to learn how we can trust each other. How can we tell… How can we dare… Everything rests on trust between strangers. Everything else is a house of cards.”