Nicholas Ray’s Knock on Any Door was released on DVD last summer as part of Sony Pictures’ Choice Collection. The 1949 film starred Humphrey Bogart and a very young John Derek as a defense attorney and his street punk of a client. It's not high on the list of Bogart classics, and it's not even one of Ray's best (It was his second film, made after the far superior They Live By Night). Ray never particularly praised it, saying only that he wished it could've been grimmer. Ray once pointed to Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, a film about Mexican slum kids that came out in 1950, as an example of the sort of film Knock On Any Door could've been. If Bunuel's film had come out first, Ray said, the inspiration would've been there to make a more penetrating, realistic work. "I would have made a hell of a lot better movie," Ray said.
Knock On Any Door is usually labeled as film noir, but nothing in the story has the subversive taint found in the best noir films, and there’s none of the sleek, European ex-pat styling, unless one counts the expressionistic lighting that cuts across the prison floor in a scene where a convicted killer makes his long walk to the death house. Knock On Any Door is more in line with the crime dramas turned out by Warner Bros during the 1930s, which makes sense when one considers Bogart got his start in those Warner Bros crime flicks, and it was Bogart’s film company, Santana Productions, that produced Knock On Any Door for Columbia Pictures.
While it wasn’t a blockbuster, it performed well enough at the box office to establish Bogart’s group as a serious production unit. It also gave us the quote, “Live fast, die young, and have a good looking corpse,” a quote so nice it’s given to us twice by the angry Nick Romano, played by Derek with all the seething anger he could muster beneath his impossibly long eyelashes. According to Bogart biographer Stefan Kanfer, Bogie tried to boost Derek's performance by pointing out that most of the day's top actors, from James Cagney, to Edward G. Robinson, to Bogart himself, had started out in crime movies, and that a good performance as a heel is always eye catching. Not surprisingly, Derek goes for broke in the film, to the point where he appears to be auditioning for a role in Reefer Madness. Look at me! he seems to say in every scene, Look at my perfect profile, my quivering lips; look at how twitchy I am when I play angry! I'm a real actor, damn it!
Derek was just a young, inexperienced actor fresh out of the paratroopers when he was cast as "Pretty Boy" Nick Romano, "the Skid Row Romeo.” Romano, like so many Hollywood hoodlums, is a good boy shoved down the wrong path in life after losing his father at a young age, and then growing up in poverty. Attorney Andrew Morgan (Bogart) has known Romano for years and has watched him struggle. When Romano is accused of killing a cop, Morgan hesitates to help. For one thing, the partners at his law firm don't want the negative attention such a trial could bring. Morgan also isn't sure if he believes Romano is innocent.
Knock On Any Door is actually two films woven together. We see Romano's tale in flashback, as he goes from being a mama’s boy, to a typical slum rat and petty thief, to a beleaguered family man who drinks too much and can't hold down a job. We also see Morgan's crisis of conscious as he works up the enthusiasm to help him. Morgan, a former slum kid himself, believes people should help themselves. Gradually, though, he sees Romano as a kid worth saving. By the film's end, Morgan vows to spend the rest of his life helping kids like Nick Romano.
The Nick Romano character was a bit ahead of the times. He looks and carries himself like a character from a mid-50s juvenile delinquent movie, perhaps The Wild One, or Blackboard Jungle, or even Ray's own Rebel Without A Cause. There were even rumors, possibly apocryphal, that Marlon Brando was interested in the Romano role. Hot off his stage success in A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando would've been an interesting Romano, and with his realistic acting, might have booted this movie into something close to a classic. According to different sources, Bogart was originally planning to make the film under the direction of Mark Hellinger, with Brando as Romano. When Hellinger died in Dec. 1947, the project was temporarily put aside until Bogart started Santana Productions. Brando, who had wanted to work with Hellinger, allegedly turned down Bogie’s offers, paving the way for Derek. (I find it a little hard to believe that Bogart was, as some biographers claim, pursuing Brando to any great degree, considering Bogart was notoriously disdainful of the self-indulgent method actor types emerging out of New York. The thought of Brando and Bogart together is fascinating, but just the fact that Bogart eventually chose Derek, who was light years away from the brooding Brando, makes me think the whole Brando rumor was nothing but a PR flack's pipe dream.)
Derek, with his greasy mop of thick black hair, looks the part of a dashing street hood, but his acting is too melodramatic and hasn't aged well. At the time, though, Derek made quite a splash, inspiring Hollywood gossip columnist Luella Parsons to write, "I predict John Derek will be one of the big screen stars of 1949." Stardom didn't quite find Derek, although he acted regularly for many years, appearing in everything from westerns to bible epics. He's probably best known to baby boomers as the husband/mentor and sometime director of Bo Derek. Even when Derek died in 1998, most of the obits focused on the couple's May/December romance, which was fodder for gossip rags during Bo's brief run at movie stardom.
Bogart is Bogart, and not much more needs to be said. There's an excellent scene where, suspecting Romano has stolen 100-dollars from him, Bogart as Morgan lures Romano into an alley and wrestles him to the ground, pinning him in the dirt with some sort of commando hold and then rifling through Romano's pocket to get back his money. "You're a two-bit punk, and that's all you'll ever be,” Bogart snarls, spraying saliva everywhere. Always a sprayer and a drooler, Bogart’s lips and chin practically shine with spittle in this movie, especially during the courtroom scenes where he has long speeches and no one around to wipe his mouth. Bogart’s forehead also perspires like crazy in the court scenes, until he looks like he's performing on the bow of a ship during a storm. He's great, though, and his closing speech to the jury is among the better scenes of his late '40s period. Heavy-handed? Sure, but Bogart could always make these scenes compelling, whereas if another actor tried it, the bit would come off as grandstanding.
"Knock On Any Door is a picture I'm kind of proud of, and I'll tell you why," Bogart the producer said in a press release trumpeting the film. "It's a very challenging story; different; off the beaten path. The novel (by Willard Motley) was brutally honest. We've tried to be just as direct, just as forceful, in the picture. I think you'll like it better that way. "
Although Variety proclaimed Knock On Any Door "a hard-hitting, tight melodrama," the film's Feb. 1949 release was greeted by mixed reviews. The notion that criminals were not always responsible for their actions was a relatively new and unpopular concept. The film was occasionally praised for its direct look at life in the slums, but Bosley Crowther of ‘The New York Times’ wasn't impressed. "Not only,” wrote Crowther, “are the justifications for the boy's delinquencies inept and superficial...but the nature and aspect of the hoodlum are outrageously heroized." Crowther, who may have invented the word ‘heroized,’ added that the film was riddled with "inconsistencies and flip-flops," and that "The whole thing appears to be fashioned for sheer romantic effect, which its gets from its 'pretty-boy' killer, victim of society and blazing guns."
Actually, the film could've used some more blazing guns. The opening sequence is a stunner, with a cop being gunned down on a dark street, and a sudden swarming of the neighborhood by cops rousting every local man with a criminal record. The scene is a mere tease, though, for the film settles down into a talky courtroom drama and doesn't quite live up to its opening blast. But give Bogie and his Santana crew credit for choosing this project as their debut voyage. They jumped on the juvenile delinquent bandwagon before it had really taken off, predating the screwed-up teenager craze by five or six years. In a way, Derek’s Nick Romano was a forerunner of James Dean, Elvis, Sal Mineo, and every other greasy hoodlum with puppy dog eyes that would populate the movie screens of the 1950s.
The Choice Collection DVD offers no extra features, but the transfer is crisp and clear, all the better to see Bogart sweat.