Nicholas Ray handled disaffected youth in his brilliant 1948 film noir They Live by Night and he’s back at it with 1949’s Knock on Any Door. Based on the 1947 novel of the same name by Willard Motley, this movie takes an honourable look at the classic subject matter of film noir and spends most of its time weaving a character study that hinges on moral and social concerns.
It’s clear that Ray cares a great deal for his subject and that’s mostly a good thing, but the narrative is sometimes misplaced in the director’s endeavour to mount a larger point. The screenplay by John Monks Jr. and Daniel Taradash packs a wallop in terms of social conscience and its calling of humanity to higher standards when it comes to handling criminals and the communities that yield them.
Humphrey Bogart stars as lawyer Andrew Morton. He takes on the case of Nick Romano (John Derek), who is accused of killing a police officer. Morton has extensive history with Romano and defends him in part because he failed to properly defend the young man’s father when he was charged with a crime he didn’t commit. Nick’s dad died in prison as a result.
Morton walks the court through Nick’s life. He discusses his marriage to Emma (Allene Roberts) and his criminal past. Morton argues that Nick was in part inclined by so-called friends and in part grounded in the persistent poverty of living in the slums. Nick’s hard knock life becomes the focal point, which takes a striking turn toward the end leaves Morton begging for understanding.
Knock on Any Door begins with its most “noir” sequence as the camera pans over a busy street in the slums and zooms to a cop blowing a whistle. A crime is in progress and there’s a shootout, complete with onlookers watching from overhead. A cop is shot repeatedly by an unseen figure and a hullabaloo erupts, with the fuzz rounding up “any hood with a record.”
Romano is caught in the web and fingered for the crime by lookers-on. Ray does a nice job inaugurating his character, initially presenting him without a shred of guilt or innocence. The audience doesn’t know if the “pretty boy” did it or not and it consequently becomes possible to examine Romano’s life. With Morton as the guide, the story develops.
Romano’s life goes through a number of paces. Sometimes he has dough and is nasty to women, slapping around a firm Nelly Watkins (Cara Williams). Sometimes he’s not doing so well and he stimulates more sympathy. A stretch in a foul reform school leaves him without a best pal and a homecoming to the streets leaves him more entrenched in the criminal lifestyle than ever.
Emma, for a time, is his candy store angel. She’s the first person in his entire life to believe in him, but Nick’s stuck in his ways. “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse,” he says as a sort of mantra. Emma hangs in as best she can, but he pushes things too far when he loses yet another job and returns once more to the felonious well.
Many arguments can be made for who or what is responsible for Nick Romano being Nick Romano. He deserves compassion, but he’s also a criminal. He’s an artefact of his environment, but he also has a choice. This divergence drives Knock on Any Door and Bogart is game to do the lecturing. He talks about the slums, unravels why everyone runs when the police are on the scene.
Ray’s Knock on Any Door is a heavy film, to be sure. It deals with racism, suicide, violence, and crime in rather cacophonous fashion. There isn’t a lot of refinement and the case Bogart’s Morton makes will be brushed aside or embraced by the usual suspects. There’s not a lot that will change hearts and minds.
But in a sense, Ray explores the central element of an archetypal film noir when he probes the mechanisms of fate. More than fate, there’s a larger paradigm: civilization has its role to play. There are reasons, not excuses. And Romano is both a product and an individual, pitched aside from birth and crushed by the weight of the world’s fables about poverty and delinquency.
The criminal case itself is really a frame in which to place Ray’s ethical argument and that makes Knock on Any Door a thought-provoking piece of work, but it’s not as effective as They Live By Night and it gets full of itself rather regularly. It lacks the fire and frenzy of the best of films noir and loses a lot of steam building its virtues. Call it a moral noir.