SPOILER ALERT. This review will discuss plot points of this film that you may not want to know if you haven’t already seen it.
Knock on Any Door was the third film Nicholas Ray directed, but it was the first of his films to have a wide theatrical release.
Ray directed his first film, They Live by Night, in 1947, but RKO didn’t know how to market it, and it premiered in the United Kingdom in a single theater on August 5, 1948.
They didn’t know how to market his second film, either — A Woman’s Secret — which he directed in 1948.
However, They Live by Night had been screened privately for many actors and producers in Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart was impressed by it, and he enlisted Ray to direct Knock on Any Door, the first film made by Bogart’s independent production company, Santana Pictures.
Knock on Any Door was an enormous success, and Ray’s earlier films soon found their way into theaters; A Woman’s Secret in March 1949, and They Live by Night in November 1949.
The screenplay for Knock on Any Door, by Daniel Taradash and John Monks Jr., was based on the best-selling 1947 novel by Willard Motley, an African-American writer from Chicago.
Motley’s novel is the story of a young Italian-American named Nick Romano who went from being an altar boy to a career criminal after growing up in a crime-ridden neighborhood and being cycled through the juvenile justice system.
In the film, “Pretty Boy” Nick Romano is played by John Derek. It was Derek’s first credit for a motion picture, although he’d had small roles in a few films before it. The 22-year-old actor was pretty much the perfect choice to play a young hood called “Pretty Boy.”
Much is made of Derek’s good looks. When he’s put on trial for murdering a police officer, his lawyer, Andrew Morton (Humphrey Bogart), makes sure to get as many women on the jury as he can.
Morton feels responsible for the man Romano has become, since his lackadaisical legal work for the Romano family when Nick was a young man doomed Nick’s father to prison. He wants to stack the jury with as many women as possible, since he believes they’ll be swayed by his cherubic face.
Morton’s argument in court is that while Nick Romano has a criminal past, he is innocent of the crime of murder. And because Morton feels partially responsible for Nick’s criminal career, he fights for him with everything he’s got.
Knock on Any Door superficially resembles Call Northside 777 (1948), another movie set in Chicago about a man on a crusade to prove that a second-generation American accused of murdering a police officer has been railroaded. But there’s a major difference between Knock on Any Door and Call Northside 777, and it’s why I put a spoiler alert at the beginning of this review. “Pretty Boy” Nick Romano is guilty.
I don’t know if this is obvious to some viewers. It wasn’t obvious to me. In fact, I felt so completely hoodwinked by Knock on Any Door that I couldn’t stop thinking about its climax after I watched it. Humphrey Bogart is such a likable protagonist, and his adversary — District Attorney Kerman (George Macready) — is so unlikable that I never once stopped to consider that Romano might actually be guilty. The film even sets up Romano as a handsome foil for the D.A., whose face is scarred. It’s strongly implied during all of the cross-examination scenes that Kerman is jealous of the young man’s good looks.
But then the film pulls the rug out from under the viewer. Not only does Romano finally break down on the stand and admit his guilt, but the last shot of the film is of Romano with the back of his head shaved, walking down a long corridor to the electric chair. I couldn’t believe it.
After Romano’s confession and before his walk to the death chamber, Bogart has a chance to speechify as only Bogart could. It’s a well-delivered speech about how crime is everyone’s fault when it’s grown in the Petri dish of the slums, but in the decades since Knock on Any Door was made, “Don’t blame me, blame society” has become a cliché.
The shouted message of the film didn’t have the same impact as the simple fact that I had grown to like Romano and was looking forward to seeing him found not guilty. When the film ended I felt betrayed and devastated.