Knock on Any Door (1949) directed by Nicholas Ray
part of the Columbia Noir #5: Humphrey Bogart box set from Indicator
(PLEASE NOTE: This is a REGION B set)
Previously reviewed from this set: Dead Reckoning (1947)
Knock on Any Door, the first film produced by Humphrey Bogart’s independent company Santana Productions, knocks on several doors, which becomes both the picture’s strength and its weakness.
Like Dead Reckoning, the first title in the Columbia Noir #5 box set, Knock on Any Door drops us into a city street at night. We witness a shootout in an alley where a cop is shot and killed. A young criminal named Nick “Pretty Boy” Romano (John Derek, in his film debut, unless you count a very small role in 1947’s A Double Life) gets tagged for the crime and thrown in the slammer, awaiting legal representation. We’ve seen all this before, even in 1949.
Cut to attorney Andrew Morton (Bogart) at home on the phone, turning down a potential client. Finishing his conversation, Morton sits down to resume a game of chess with his wife Adele (Candy Toxton, credited as Susan Perry). As the game continues, Morton tries to convince himself that turning down the case is the right thing to do. Although she never says a word, Adele apparently has the ability to change her husband’s mind simply by her presence. (We sense this isn’t the first time she’s done this. Or perhaps she knows he has to argue with himself before making final decisions.) Morton takes the client, which is, of course, Nick Romano.
Cue Flashback Central: We learn that Nick wasn’t really a bad kid, he just got in with the wrong crowd. Living in poverty and in a single-parent family can contribute to that. As Nick is drawn into a life of crime he justifies his behavior with what has become the film’s most famous line: “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.”
When Nick finds a nice girl named Emma (Allene Roberts) he tries the straight-and-narrow for a while. We’ve seen all this before as well.
Earlier in the decade Bogart might have played the Nick Romano character. In the 1930s, he would’ve portrayed one of the young hoods hanging out with Nick. Here he plays the lawyer who grew up in the same environment as Nick, which provides one of those strength/weakness contrasts I mentioned earlier. Years earlier Morton was responsible for putting Nick’s dad in prison where he died, so the lawyer is clearly seeking to make things right this time around. Now we understand why he didn’t want the case.
Much of this is familiar, and large parts of the film would be routine if not for Bogart’s performance. John Derek (regardless of what we think of his later career and behavior) gets the job done, which is about the best you can hope for when you’re standing toe to toe with Bogart. Nick’s character is mostly unlikable, becoming a symbol (a major weakness) rather than a character as the film draws to its conclusion.
Casting Barry Kelley as a judge is something of a head-scratcher, but George Macready as District Attorney Kerman is a perfect choice, although the character is written primarily as a one-dimensional foil for Morton. Yet the courtroom scenes are the best parts of the film, including a nice interior voiceover as Morton examines the jury members, scenes with witnesses that are both comedic and intense, and a wonderful moment in which Kerman taunts Nick on the stand, calling him “Pretty Boy” while the DA fingers his own (real) facial scar.
It’s unfair to judge a film for what it should have been rather than what it is, but had Knock on Any Door focused on Morton’s guilt and fears that he might let down the Romano family again, we might have had a better picture. The film is also extremely didactic in its last reel. Morton’s closing argument is certainly passionate, but soon grows preachy.
One of the film’s strengths is Ray’s insistence on detail, which includes the sweat on the faces of people in the courtroom, tight shots of Nick in confined spaces implying capture, and scenes on or near staircases conveying instability. Yet details should refine something that’s already well-established.
The real weakness of the film is in making Nick a symbol, a victim of his environment. Yes, he is an outsider, unable to fit into normal society. While impressively shot, the final moments of the film make sure we understand who’s really at fault here, reducing the characters to metaphors. It’s the old nature vs. nurture argument, which is endless, yet this is some of the same territory Nicholas Ray explored in his first film They Live by Night (1948). Throughout his career, Ray was fascinated by and sympathetic toward the outcast, which we would see several years later in his most famous film Rebel without a Cause (1955). Knock on Any Door is something of a dress rehearsal for that film, and while it contains many good moments, watching it can be a frustrating experience.
Audio commentary with writer and film historian Pamela Hutchinson
Nobody Knows How Anybody Feels (2022, 20 min.) appreciation by critic and film programmer Geoff Andrew
Andrew does a fine job exploring several aspects of the film’s production, creators, themes, and more. I like this a bit more than the Tony Rayns featurette on Dead Reckoning (which is still good) and hope the rest of the subsequent appreciations are up to the level Andrew establishes here.
Tuesday in November (1945, 17 min.)
Produced by the Office of War for the series The American Scene, this short (with Ray serving as assistant director) describing the democratic process of the American government was originally meant for overseas distribution, but was probably shown to American children well into the 1950s.
61 images, again, of varying quality
Next: Tokyo Joe (1949)
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