Review by Cullen Gallagher
Posted on 19 August 2008
Source Columbia Pictures VHS
Categories The Mystic: The Films of Nicholas Ray
Simply put, this is the nightmare of Nicholas Ray: “When life is based on one law: fear. An island of outrage: work and sleep and eat by command; pray by command… Look over the gray fence at the far away hill, look through the bars at the free night, without hope except someday get out, get even.” In Knock on Any Door, lawyer Andrew Morton (Humphrey Bogart), a former child of skid row who was able to overcome circumstance, may be speaking about the experience of juvenile incarceration (which he knows intimately from first-hand experience), but he could very well be enunciating the subjectivity of any of Ray’s protagonists. Fear not only the demons from without, but also from within - as much the capacity for being wronged as for committing wrong - that one may “get out” and successfully “get even.”
Farley Granger’s Bowie, the young lover hardboiled before his time, in They Live by Night (1948); Bogart’s Dix Steele, the screenwriter suspected of murder, from In a Lonely Place (1950); Robert Ryan’s sadistic, tormented cop from On Dangerous Ground (1951); James Dean’s Jim Stark, a ball of adolescent angst and rage, from Rebel Without a Cause (1954): they all share in the same good/bad, innocent/guilty duality as Pretty Boy Nick Romano (John Derek), Morton’s young defendant on trial for sticking up a bar and murdering a police officer. Told in flashback to the jury/audience (who serve as one and the same), Romano’s childhood and adolescence was one of poverty, desperation, and increasing tragedy. The product of his environment - a violent skid row neighborhood, for which all of society is guilty for allowing to exist, according to Morton - Romano’s criminality was less a choice than a lesson learned by watching the world around him.
Ray’s signature touch is that there is no easy condemnation or exoneration for any of these characters. More than just the scripts themselves, Ray is able to elicit startlingly expressive performances from his actors (more expressive than in many contemporaneous films) that challenge any easy judgments from the audience. This uncertainty is enhanced in Knock on Any Door by leaving Romano’s guilt uncertain until the very end of the picture: regardless of our suspicions, we had come to empathize with Romano as a wrongly accused youth, and the revelation of his guilt is a severe blow to both our sense of security as well as certainty. If we are made to connect so emotionally to a criminal, does that mean we are complicit in his crime, as well? In Ray’s world, there is no rooting for the good guy or the bad guy, but an overall sense that such an easy binary is insufficient in the modern world/modern cinema. And insufficient it is, if Ray’s films are any indication (and I believe they are).
If there is any major weakness to Knock on Any Door, it is the idealization of the Emma (Allene Roberts), the “good girl” that falls in love with Romano despite his coming clean about his hoodlum status. That Emma works in a candy store with her single mother is indicative of the film’s overly romanticized notion of “purity”: first, there is the association of candy with childhood innocence; and secondly, there is the lack of a masculine presence in her life, as though there is something inherently “pure” about women, just as there is something “impure” about men. Thus, the presence of Nick Romano is an unavoidable downfall in her life—he is, perhaps, an homme fatale. (In fact, he not only destroys Emma, but the lurid publicity of his case prevents Morton from becoming a partner in the law firm he works for, and his friends that fabricated alibis will no doubt suffer consequences for their perjury).
Mike Wilmington perceptively criticizes Knock on Any Door for the incongruity of Emma’s purity and the moral uncertainty surrounding Romano: “its public display of crime, of a life stripped raw, is the negation of the world of romance and illusion.”1 Ray would perfect this mixture in Rebel Without a Cause: Judy (Natalie Wood) is not so one-dimensional as Emma, nor does her relationship with Jim (James Dean) run parallel to a troubled world (as though some oasis of potential happiness/escape), but is instead deeply enmeshed in their turmoil and desperation. In Ray’s best work - Rebel, In a Lonely Place, and On Dangerous Ground - love never provides the answers: it only complicates and obscures the answers even more.
The third film Ray directed (following They Live by Night and A Woman’s Secret ) but the first to receive theatrical distribution (in February of 1949, with Secret following the next month in March), Knock on Any Door was praised upon its release for “Ray’s direction [which] stresses the realism of the script… and gives the film a hard, taut pace that compels complete attention.”2 As realistic as his direction can be, Ray often uses expressionism to convey the surrealism of violence and the isolation of the oppressed. We watch as the camera takes the perspective of a police cruiser, and as a spotlight catches Nick Romano in a dark alley, it is as though “we” are catching him; in a flashback to his time in reform school, we experience first-hand the brutal punishment of a fire-hose as its torrent hits the camera; and as Romano and Morton receive the judge’s verdict, they stare into the lens of the camera, in the face of the audience, as though it is us delivering his sentence. We are guilty of capture, torture, and judgment: Ray does not allow any passive spectatorship. No one walks away innocent—we are all guilty of something, if even of standing by while injustice, whether institutionalized or in the streets, is allowed to exist. A didactic message, for sure, but one which Ray empathizes with completely—and convincingly.
In A Lonely Place1950
They Live By Night1948
A Woman’s Secret1949
Knock on Any Door1949
Born to Be Bad1950
On Dangerous Ground1952
The Lusty Men1952
High Green Wall1954
Rebel Without a Cause1955
Bigger Than Life1956
The True Story of Jesse James1957
King of Kings1961
55 Days at Peking1963
We Can’t Go Home Again1973-1976
Lightning Over Water1980