blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Knock on Any Door (1949, Nicholas Ray)

Knock on Any Door opens with Humphrey Bogart, then heads into a lengthy flashback detailing the life of young thug John Derek. Bogart’s his attorney, defending him on a murder rap; Bogart’s opening statement leads to the flashback. It’s a lengthy flashback, introducing not just Derek but Bogart and the assorted Skid Row denizens who will show up again on the witness stand.

There’s only one significant problem with the flashback, which is otherwise well-directed and beautifully photographed by Burnett Guffey. It’s Derek. He’s awful. Director Ray doesn’t do particularly well with his actors. Bogart’s either fine or excellent, but he doesn’t need any help. Derek clearly needs a lot of it and Ray instead focuses on his “pretty boy” looks (including in an awful jump cut at the finish).

The filmmaking is effective enough–and exploitative enough–to make Derek sympathetic to some degree. Particularly when he’s ruining his pretty young wife’s life (Allene Roberts in an under-directed, thankless performance). Roberts isn’t great but she can carry it. Derek’s just too shallow.

Except then the film finally gets to trial–an hour or so in–and it turns out most of Door is pretty shallow. Ray also gets a questionable performance out of George Macready as the awful prosecutor. Ray pushes too hard to make Macready unlikable and it hurts the film. Ray already does better with the flashback sequences (and an outstanding setup) than he does with the trial directing. Macready and Bogart bickering just gets annoying, especially since it turns out Ray and his screenwriters are just throwing red herrings like they’re putting it into fishie chowder.

Bogart does get a great lawyer monologue, but it’s problematic not just in terms of the narrative but also in how the film turns in on itself. It’s such a severe disconnect, it doesn’t matter Derek was awful in a flashback running over half of the runtime. Manipulation trumps bad acting most times.

There are some solid supporting turns, all uncredited. Except Barry Kelley’s judge. He brings a lot of gravitas to the trial scenes, something Macready and director Ray do not.

Mostly great editing from Viola Lawrence, especially in the flashback sequences and the opening setup. Great sets, almost mediocre music (from George Antheil).

I wish I was more disappointed about Knock on Any Door, but it’s so lacking in sincerity, I can’t muster it.

5 responses to “Knock on Any Door (1949, Nicholas Ray)”

  1. It’s been many years since I attempted this one. I recall enjoying it as a teen and not being able to get through it some time later. Going on that experience I would say that your critique is very accurate.

  2. Thanks for bringing “Knock On Any Door” to our blogathon. I remember liking this many many ( too many ) years ago as a teenager. Reading your review, I’d be scared to look at the movie again. But what the hell, I’d just be looking at John Derek’s fine looks anyway. Thanks again for the entry.

  3. I really like this film – I can’t help it! I’m not blind to its faults, which you’ve expertly pointed out, but I love it in spite of itself. In fact, I think I’ll try to watch it again this week.

    Great review, though. You’re spot on about Bogart: He’s either fine or excellent and he certainly doesn’t need help.

  4. Monologues in courtroom scenes are usually fantastic, and with Bogart I don’t doubt it’ll be the highlight of the film. Too bad the rest doesn’t work well. Ray could have made a better film with different actors, couldn’t he?
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂

  5. I’ve not seen this film, but have seen it on TCM’s schedule. Just haven’t been interested enough to tune in to see it. With Ray as director, who I think was a stinker on and off a movie set from what I’ve read about him, it’s too bad that this film didn’t turn out better. Thanks for taking a look at it!

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