Knock on Any Door plays as part of a 15-film Nicholas Ray retrospective at New York’s Film Forum on July 29th & 30th.
Almost all of Nicholas Ray’s films are built around identification with those who move beyond the constructed norms of American social strata. More than anything, they are individuals seeking their own type of community that does not have to answer to any preconceived ideas about how people should co-exist. His best work brings this new community to startling, haunting life; his lesser efforts tend to overstate their intentions. Knock on Any Door (1949) appears to fall into the latter category.
Indeed, Knock on Any Door may be Ray’s most overstated film, if only because it speaks more closely than his other 3rd-tier work to his favorite thematic material. (A Woman’s Secret, Born to Be Bad, and Flying Leathernecks cannot be accused of being sympathetic to outsiders.) It is even reinforced in the very structure of the film, Ray’s second consecutive flashback-whodunit. A court trial is only a pretense to uncovering the life of hoodlum Nick “Pretty Boy” Romano (John Derek), and how he has crossed paths with his lawyer, Andrew Morton (Humphrey Bogart) at crucial moments. Knock on Any Door loses its power by bluntly stating its liberal, “bleeding heart” philosophy about youth and society over and over again. Ray is held back by a script that doesn’t allow for silence, atmosphere, and temporal suspension.
Ray is not one to go quietly, though, and throughout the film we see his trademark visual panache. The film is littered with behind-the-head shots of conversations. The bars and fences of back alleys, jail cells, and windows reinforce Nick’s entrapment, as these symbols always do in Ray’s work. Emma (Allene Roberts), a quiet candy store clerk who Nick falls in love with, has a defiant, independent streak when she first meets him, but once they commit themselves to each other, he pushes her away and she blindly, steadfastly stays by his side. Ray doesn’t push her character toward the depths of Keechie, Laurel Gray, Mary Malden, or Vienna, to the film’s detriment. That being said, a chilling shot of her hands turning the gas handles of the oven speaks volumes of her desperation.
Ray’s delicate handling of social milieu is evident any time he takes the camera into the streets. Derek’s strident performance, however—along with Bogart’s tendency to deliver soapbox rhetoric to the hilt—keeps Knock on Any Door from burrowing beneath the surface of things. But still, one remembers those singular moments. The eroticism of Nick’s close-ups; an elderly Italian mother speaking in unsubtitled Italian, her son responding in English; the silent grief on Nick’s face as he holds his dead wife’s hands; the epic closing image, the light drawing Nick toward oblivion, the back of Morton’s body staring at him, helpless. If sentiment and stilted drama hold Knock on Any Door back, its individual images capture raw, powerful emotions.
Homes for Strangers: The Cinema of Nicholas Ray is an on-going series of articles covering the 2009 retrospective on Nicholas Ray, running from July 17th to August 6th—with a special bonus on August 16th & 17th at the Anthology Film Archives—at New York's Film Forum.