– Bernard Eisenschitz (1)
“In some respects, Knock on Any Door conforms to a standard social-conscience drama format: Romano is the poor, misunderstood and impressionable teenager from the wrong side of the tracks. With his journey from wronged innocence to the electric chair, we are led to a simplistic conclusion: we, society, are guilty.”
– Geoff Andrew (2)
These dismissals of Knock on Any Door, made after but released before Ray’s directorial debut and breakthrough They Live by Night (1949), overlooks its significance as a signpost marking Ray’s key abilities and limitations. Time and again, Ray is drawn into genre work – and he can’t stifle his irresistible impulse to subvert conventions.
Knock on Any Door belongs to a portmanteau of genres and forms – the message movie, the flashback biography, the courtroom drama. In each case, Ray conveys something completely different beneath the didactic surface layer the script provides. In doing so, he exposes the bankruptcies of the formulae – the message is meaningless, the bio doesn’t add up, and the drama is not redemptive.
In this misfire Ray midwifes the “wayward youth” genre and its more exploitative offshoots, and prophesies, 20 years before their peak, the Generation Gap and the youth-culture shift that would take over and dominate America in subsequent decades.
Every important Ray film has a martyr at its centre. From They Live by Night through King of Kings (1961), Ray’s most personal and successful films feature a protagonist who is tormented by society, hunted down and killed (or neutralised). Sometimes this figure is divided into two, as are Plato (Sal Mineo) and Jim Stark (James Dean) in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) (3), and Danny Malden (Sumner Williams) and Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) in On Dangerous Ground (1952) – one dies and the other is redeemed. But there is no redemption in Knock on Any Door, and all the tragedy is drained out of it by virtue of the presence of the unrepentant, angry youth at its centre.
The film is adapted from the best-selling 1947 novel by Willard Motley, a sprawling, episodic work that catapulted its author to fame after a 25-year freelance writing career. It’s the story of Nick Romano (played by John Derek in Ray’s film) – a petty-criminal and full-time loser from the slums of Chicago, on trial for killing a cop. Like other writers of his time, such as John Steinbeck and James T. Farrell, Motley adapted his early journalistic training into a relaxed form of naturalism, mixing didactic and observational passages into a readable, if heavy-handed style – in this sense, it is advocacy fiction.
Throughout the novel, Motley builds his case against society just as surely as Nick’s attorney does. The latter part of the book is marred by several pages-long passages in which the author’s philosophy is piped through Morton (the defence attorney). But peer in – close beneath the surface of Knock on Any Door is pure, imported nihilism. Motley’s viewpoint indicts everyone and everything, and doesn’t admit any hope.
The popular book seemed tailor-made for Hollywood adaptation. The postwar boom in message movies was in full swing. The World War II period in America had codified the movies as a pleasant and inspiring vehicle for transmitting information, propaganda and affirmation of “American” values to the masses. Now, “problem” films such as The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945), The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946), Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk, 1947), Gentleman’s Agreement (Elia Kazan, 1947), and Home of the Brave (Mark Robson, 1949) all sought to right wrong (and wrong-thinking) on celluloid.
Directors such as Robson, Joseph Losey, Abraham Polonsky, Stanley Kramer and Kazan specialised in this kind of hectoring, finger-pointing fare. Not surprisingly, they and Ray were all strongly influenced by the left-leaning idealism and government-sanctioned artistic revolts of the 1930s. Some of them would suffer for it later during the anti-communist witch-hunt of the early 1950s. The theory of art as social corrective was being pulled down by an undertow of existential pessimism, a return to adolescent angst.
Kazan took Ray under his wing and let him serve as an uncredited assistant on his first full-length film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in 1945. Like Kazan, Ray’s theatrical training made him actor-centric and open to unconventional approaches to getting emotional truth on film.
As the already completed but still unreleased They Live by Night made its way around Hollywood in private industry screenings, its quality induced Humphrey Bogart to name Ray as the director of the first feature to be produced by his independent production company, Santana. Bogart was increasingly attracted to issues-oriented material as he aged; Knock on Any Door makes for a trilogy of late-period socially-conscious films along with The Enforcer (Bretaigne Windust [and Raoul Walsh], 1951) and Deadline – U.S.A. (Richard Brooks, 1952).
Ultimately, Knock on Any Door might have been a far more riveting and memorable film had its original casting stood:
There were plans for Bogart to star in… an adaptation of the new best-seller Knock on Any Door, the tale of a juvenile delinquent as victim of his childhood. Supposedly Marlon Brando was to play the young man, whose credo was “live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse”. (4)
Bogie! Brando! A tantalising, never realised onscreen pairing. But Brando dropped out early on, shortly after the film’s original producer, Mark Hellinger, died.
John Derek is a poor substitute. Although Derek fits his character’s nickname – “Pretty Boy” Romano – he can’t measure up to the demands of his first leading role. Almost impossibly handsome, Derek had a career of sorts in feature film roles of varying sizes. (Eventually, he was best remembered for marrying three of the most beautiful women in Christendom: Ursula Andress, Linda Evans and Bo Derek.) Here he rages, and even cries, to little effect (is his tear-stained face part of the inspiration for the 1958 Roger Corman-produced The Cry Baby Killer, Jack Nicholson’s first starring role?) “Nobody knows how anybody feels!” Derek shouts out bitterly early in the film. He storms off, and Bogart in character as his defence attorney Andrew Morton quietly observes, “When did he find that out?” For all the emoting Derek does, Bogart draws the eye whenever he is on screen, effortlessly – the essential gravitas of the iconic Bogie presence is palpable.
Even the veteran studio character actors that pepper the film’s background – Chester Conklin, Jimmy Conlin, Sid Melton and Vince Barnett – manage to upstage the putative protagonist. Derek’s lack of screen presence makes Romano a passive figure, a plaything of fate and not a very bright or charming or empathy-inspiring or redemption-deserving one at that.
The film opens vividly, as a montage of crime and punishment flashes past. The killer, face shrouded, shoots down a policeman, then stands over his body and empties his gun into him. It happens so briskly that it haunts the rest of the film as a gruesome after-image. As a police dragnet spreads across the city, the camera’s elevated perspective in the sequence turns the action into something like that seen from the box at the theatre – a bustle below.
It’s only when we get to Bogart as Morton, who fought his way out of the slums from which Romano himself has come, that the camera starts paying attention to the human face. Bogie is in his comfort-zone in this role, superior and assured. As film logic dictates, he grouses but agrees to take Nick’s case.
In the following passage, visually quite unlike anything in the rest of the film, Bogart’s character makes his way down a trash-strewn, boarded-over moonscape of a neighbourhood that seems caked in dust to boot. He searches among the derelict inhabitants for witnesses that will bolster Nick’s case. For a moment, we are in Roberto Rossellini’s Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero, 1948).
This and the rest of the film, much of which is shot in harsh, flat light with lumpy, theatrical staging, is the work of two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Burnett Guffey. He did not seem overly thrilled by this assignment: “I was kind of a captive. Whoever they assigned me to, if it was agreeable with the director, I went and I did the picture.” (5) But there are moments that stand out: Nick and his wife Emmy with heads briefly, blissfully together; Nick smashing a bottle against a door at a ritzy fishing cabin Morton takes him to in order to “improve” him; Morton overcoming Nick in a dark alley.
The bulk of the film takes place in flashback, as Morton presents Romano’s case to the jury (in voiceover, Morton cynically evaluates the capacity of its members to succumb to his rhetoric). The wonderfully villainous George Macready (Mundson in Gilda [Charles Vidor, 1944] and Gen. Mireau in Paths of Glory [Stanley Kubrick, 1957]) plays the District Attorney, Kerman. At one point Macready rubs at the prominent scar he sported on his right cheek and, with a pathological gleam in his eyes, asks “Pretty Boy” on the stand about his success with the ladies. The State is up to no good, and it’s staffed by maniacs.
We move through the Rake’s Progress of Nick Romano, from the early loss of his father to his first beating to his life of crime, which seems to be one of the more unsuccessful ones on the books. “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse”, he sneers periodically. Coming from Derek, it sounds merely dumb, not like a credo of desperation.
His one chance at redemption, his too-good-to-be-true wife Emma (Allene Roberts), is cloyingly cheerful, convinced of her man’s abilities – until she kills herself, of course, a move that comes without foreshadowing. Emmy just hits the limit of what she can take and turns on the gas. The chilling image of Nick’s pregnant wife, shot from the waist down, turning on the stopcocks of the gas stove that will asphyxiate her in despair, is particularly memorable. A rooftop shot of Nick peering down at the funeral, in hiding and in tears, is the stuff of pure melodrama.
Morton takes the case despite being warned by his partners that it will affect his professional future. The distinction between the helpless Nick and the self-made Morton couldn’t be clearer. Morton is wised-up. Morton is part of the system; he knows about its hypocrisies and dirty deals, but is mature (or compromised) enough to choose to dwell within its limitations. Nick can only lash out at it without comprehension.
The only real moment for Derek as Romano occurs near the end, when his character decides to take the stand in his own defence. “I want to live”, he says quietly and evenly, staring off into the middle-distance during his conference with Morton.
After a witness-box badgering from Kerman that we are given to believe has taken hours, a series of flash cuts from Kerman’s hydrophobic mien to Nick’s angry, tear-filled eyes presages the breakdown moment when Nick cracks and yells what then must not have been a clichéd phrase: “Yeah, I did it! And I’m GLAD I did it!”
Sheepishly changing his client’s plea to “Guilty”, Morton must make a grand speech to the judge for clemency. Morton indicts Society for the crime Nick has committed with a “J’Accuse” moment that echoes the book directly:
Morton stopped a full minute, looking round the courtroom, then at the jury, with angry eyes. When he spoke again, his voice was colder, more deliberate. ‘Society is you and I and all of us. We – Society – are hard and weak and stupid and selfish. We are full of brutality and hate. We reproach environment and call it crime. We reproach crime – or what we choose to label crime – without taking personal responsibility. We reproach the victims of our own making and whether they are innocent or not once we bring them before the court, the law, Society – once we try them, we try them without intelligence, without sympathy, without understanding! (6)
Society is a malevolent and powerful force that perpetuates itself and kills individuals.
The film space becomes flatter and flatter as Bogart orates, until finally he is oriented looking straight up at the camera, which has resumed the elevated perch it held at the film’s beginning, and is now the perspective of the judge at his bench. “If Nick Romano dies, we killed him”, Morton says. We are the judge and jury. Derek sits passive and dejected. The judge then congratulates Morton for the quality of his summation – then sentences Romano to the electric chair.
The film’s rushed coda, buried under the credits, is key. On Nick’s execution day, Morton visits him in his cell and swears to continue helping other boys like Nick (presumably, however, only if they are innocent). Nick doesn’t seem to care. He “goes to the electric chair in a strangely tranquil mood, there, perhaps, to rejoin her [his wife] in death” (7). This almost seems a direct steal from the end of The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946), when John Garfield’s Frank Chambers expresses content at the prospect of execution reuniting him with his beloved partner in crime, Cora (Lana Turner).
Morton walks Nick into the foreground of the last shot. Nick walks away from the camera toward the harsh white light emanating from the Death House door, framed by guards. As he goes, he fingers a little bare patch at the top of his head – the one that is shorn to induce better contact between the electrodes that will kill him and his flesh. Nick pauses at the door, stops, turns to a guard. There is the momentary possibility that he will turn back to us one last time, say something that will make sense of his life. He beckons to a guard, who hands him a comb. One last time Nick grooms his tousled hairdo, then turns and exits.
In the book, this gesture is clearly a cover for his fear:
Turning his head slowly to the guard standing next to him in the cell, he said, “Lend me your comb”. Without answering the guard handed Nick a comb. Nick pulled it through his curly hair. He felt it scrape, with the little excited thrill of life, against his scalp. He combed his hair slowly and neatly, following up the comb with the palm of his other hand until every hair was perfectly in place and brilliant with highlights above the handsome, tortured face. Then his touched his fingers gently to where the hair covered the bald spot where death would strike him. He handed the comb back to the guard. His fingers shook; he was ashamed of their shaking. (8)
In the shot, though, Nick is too far away for his features to register – we can only see the shape of his actions. It looks a lot more like a final, vain act of defiance. The ending works only if the viewer really feels that Nick is an innocent wronged by society, a helpless victim from the word go. The abandonment of a sense of personal responsibility doesn’t make sense to adults, but it’s a vibe that would spread rapidly throughout the younger portion of the culture.
And that gestural germ would resonate for a long, long time. America’s wild youth of the ’50s were resolutely in the here and now, contemptuous of the establishment and the square lifestyle. “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse”, would become a statement of bravado. The can-do spirit of the ’30s crumbled into a more sophisticated, numbing buzz of existential despair.
In Ray’s cosmos, the adults are the inmates in the institution, and primarily attuned to working the system to their own advantage, not in subverting it. The young and the maladjusted (or as-yet unadjusted) in Ray’s films can’t make sense of this prosaic, corrupt world and perish, physically or spiritually, by their ends. Young people can’t imagine growing up, and Knock on Any Door tells them they shouldn’t, really. Nick himself gives up on the film, the audience’s scrutiny, as he walks away from the camera to the electric chair. Nick doesn’t care – why should we?
From now on, despair and defiance would be linked in a wave of films that would simultaneously delight in and condemn the ways of wayward youth. Just as gangster films in the ’30s lavishly illustrated the events they were supposed to be disdaining, these shameful but sexy, dangerous explorations, perfected in Rebel Without a Cause six years later, would take hold and breed a new film stereotype – the juvenile delinquent.
More mature, thoughtful and well-funded efforts such as Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks, 1955) were trailed and offset by low-budget fly-by-night flicks such as Teen-Age Crime Wave (Fred F. Sears, 1955), The Delinquents (Robert Altman, 1957), High School Hellcats (Edward Bernds, 1958) and Naked Youth (John F. Schreyer, 1961); all of which revelled in the debauchery of zip guns, cigarettes, black leather-jackets, heavy petting and switchblades, and then tacked on a grim moral at the end just to keep on the censors’ good side.
“The typical Ray hero is a loner, at once contemptuous of the complacent normal society world and tormented with a longing to be reaccepted into it.” (9) What Kemp observes about Ray’s protagonists is true of Ray himself and his relationship to filmmaking. Driven to present his unique vision, he took every opportunity to turn genre inside out and question it, while yearning for mainstream success at the same time. It’s this that made him “the first home-grown film-poet of American disillusionment” (10). By January 1958, Jean-Luc Godard had pronounced his name synonymous with cinema (11).
- Bernard Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, Faber and Faber, London, 1990, p. 116.
- Geoff Andrew, The Films of Nicholas Ray: The Poet of Nightfall, BFI, London, 2004, p. 36.
- John Francis Kreidl has argued that “[t]the film, in many ways, is a dry run for Rebel Without a Cause”. See Kreidl, Nicholas Ray, Twayne, Boston, 1977, p. 31.
- A. M. Sperber and Eric Lax, Bogart, William Morrow and Co., New York, 1997, p. 396.
- Eisenschitz, p. 113.
- Willard Motley, Knock on Any Door, Northern Illinois University Press, 1989, p. 442.
- Kreidl, p. 38.
- Motley, p. 495.
- Philip Kemp, “Nicholas Ray”, International Dictionary of Film and Filmmakers, Vol. 2, 4th ed., ed. Tom and Sara Pendergast, St. James Press, Detroit, 2000, p. 542.
- Andrew, p. 9.
- See Jean Luc Godard, “Bitter Victory”, Godard on Godard, trans. and ed. Tom Milne, Da Capo Press, New York and London, 1972, p. 64.
Knock on Any Door (1949 USA 100 mins)
Prod Co: Santana Pictures Corporation Prod: Robert Lord Dir: Nicholas Ray Scr: John Monks Jr., Daniel Taradash, based on the novel by Willard Motley Phot: Burnett Guffey Ed: Viola Lawrence Art Dir: Robert Peterson Mus: George Antheil
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, John Derek, George Macready, Allene Roberts, Candy Toxton, Mickey Knox, Barry Kelley, Dewey Martin