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.
Directed by Nicholas Ray; screenplay by Daniel Taradash and John Monks Jr., based on the novel by Willard Motley; director of photography, Burnett Guffey; edited by Viola Lawrence; music by George Antheil; produced by Robert Lord; released by Columbia Pictures.
Starring Humphrey Bogart (Andrew Morton), John Derek (Nick Romano), Allene Roberts (Emma), Candy Toxton (Adele Morton), George Macready (Dist. Atty. Kerman) and Barry Kelley (Judge Drake).
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