For Reel

Knock on Any Door (1949)
February 10, 2012, 12:19 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Nicholas Ray

Before his debut feature, They Live by Night, had been released in theaters, Nicholas Ray was enlisted by Humphrey Bogart to direct a social problem picture for his newly-founded Santana Production company. Bogart himself was cast as a lawyer who must defend a delinquent, played by John Derek, in a murder trial. The film, Knock on Any Door, was based on a novel by Willard Motley, which argued that the slums of America are producing criminals, and that society at large should take responsibility for these cyclical patterns of the impoverished class. While the premise leads to a moving, humanist speech by Bogart in the third act, it is slightly mishandled given that Derek had many opportunities to succeed in his youth – Bogart’s fatherly companionship, his relationship with a social worker, a loving, supporting girlfriend –  and he blew each one. While the picture calls for social reform, it conversely suggests that, at a certain point, the damage has been done and that criminals are simply a lost cause. Despite the critical flaw, the picture is handsomely made – in the flashback sequences of Derek’s childhood, characters wear striped shirts that resemble prison garb, and there’s a number of vertical lines both within the set and constructed through shadows that suggest that Derek, like the rest of his friends and family, is literally trapped within his socioeconomic boundaries. Derek wasn’t much of an actor and, indeed, his “pretty boy” monicker in the film reveals just about all that he has going for him, however his scenes are often salvaged by the talented character players around him (a terribly-scarred George Macready as the district attorney is particularly memorable).

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