[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]
Ray frames the cop killing in shadow, enshrouding the face of the killer, but the police confidently charge Nick Romano (John Derek), a local thug with a a rap sheet as long as a medieval tapestry. Nick, like much of the movie, plays as a sort of run-through for the ideas Ray would flesh out further with Rebel Without a Cause. As if working his way up the social ladder, Ray precedes his take on the invasion of bourgeois, suburban values with a decidedly working-class overview of the same broad topic of disaffected youth. But if Nick, like Jim Stark, has no active cause, he is nevertheless the product of causes of a different sort, transformational social influences pointed out in detail by the visualized arguments of lawyer Andrew Morton (Humphrey Bogart).
Bogart, as if prepping for his even more despairing performance in the following year's In a Lonely Place, plays up his hangdog looks to match the anguish of Ray's approach to character. Initially, Morton is reluctant to defend Nick not only because he came from the same rough slums where the crime took place but because the partners of his firm threaten to withholding making him a full partner if he takes such a tawdry case. But after an amusingly one-sided argument with his wife, who merely sits silently with an unmoving, judgmental face that prompts hand-wringing self-defense, Andy finally acquiesces. But that doesn't soften Morton's opinion of Nick one bit; "If he's innocent," Andy drawls, "it'll be the first time."
That fatalistic approach defines the film, even after Bogart builds to a passionate defense in court and melodramatic flashbacks show Nick's fall into a life of petty crime. Visiting Nick in a holding cell, the chain-link fence casts a shadow upon the opposite wall, doubling the sense of being trapped before the trial even begins. In court, Morton openly addresses the various biases of the jury, the penchants for sympathy that led them to be chosen for the trial in the first place. His kind tone to the jury members belies his open acknowledgement of the deck-stacking behind each jury selection. But it is when Morton's attempts to contextualize Nick's life lead to flashbacks of the young man's lurid but unimportant life that Ray's capacity for making visually striking images of ennui and anomie comes alive.
The full-frame width of the screen helps define the different dimensions of the underclass to which Nick belongs as the child of first-generation immigrants growing up in the slums. The 'Scope framing of Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger Than Life emphasized the empty space around middle-class families who project fantasies of even bigger wealth into that area, while the tenement housing here is cramped, barely able to fit a meager collection of basic furniture, to say nothing of the considerable progeny filling these sardine-can apartments (recall that both Rebel and Bigger feature families with only children compared to the sizable ones here). The script fashions the botched case of Nick's father—a case Morton handed off to a co-worker because of its perceived ease, only for the other lawyer to let the man go to jail because he didn't want to waste time defending an immigrant facing minimal jail time—as the catalyst for his downfall, but the crucible in which he lived would have wrought its changes at some point even without a freak occurrence.
One of Ray's most consistent themes during his command of the 1950s was his clear disdain for mob mentality and the desire to string up the nearest undesirable whenever anything went wrong. Morton shares that attitude, and the flashbacks that stem from his statements to the court show how criminals are made, not born. Derek plays his younger self with a Beaver-like innocence, his voice high and his face fresh. Confronted by the indifference of the system, however, he begins to harden, that charming, boyish face curling until even his forehead seems to sneer. Arrested for a petty crime, Nick finds himself in a horrid jail cell with a friend dying of pneumonia, which the guards treat with blasts of a fire hose, and the POV shot of water blasting the frame into oblivion makes his outrage all the more deeply felt. You'd be hard-pressed to trust the cops after that, too.
Left without any sense of direction in this awful neighborhood, Nick morphs into a punk, a greaser whose mantra "Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse" is at once defiant and childishly asinine. But that swagger floats him beyond the truth that he is, ultimately, one piss-poor crook, capable of nothing more impressive than lifting money from registers or causing minor vandalism. His sole attempt at a proper robbery is darkly comic in the anticlimax of its disaster: the robbery is cut short by discovery, and as the men flee one of Nick's cohorts slides out a door, only to fall down the stairs outside, roll under the rail and plummet to his death. Pathetic actions like these cannot dent Nick's reputation, however, and even before he tries a real heist he's the toast of the local misfits.
To add complexity and flecks of actual happiness to Nick's story, Ray shows the boy falling for Emma, a girl so sweet she seems to be spun out of cane sugar. (As is fitting, we meet her as the girl behind the register in a candy shop.) Having gone in there to steal from the register, Nick suddenly blanches at this vision of almost unreal innocence, and even when Emma's alcoholic aunt presents Nick with the opportunity for a clean steal, he cannot bring himself to do it, much to the annoyance of his friend waiting outside beckoning and even storming in later to impatiently and indirectly berate Nick in front of Emma.
Love in Nicholas Ray's movies is always a stabilizing force, but never one strong enough to overpower the crippling effects of fate and the system. Morton, a foil for Nick, grew up in the same areas but pulled himself out of hardship, something that initially makes him cold to the rest who are still stuck there. But as he works with Nick and tries to help the kid out, we see the contrast between the two: Morton realized he couldn't beat the system and joined it, but that simply isn't an option for Nick, no matter how hard he tries. Not even settling down with Emma can cool him for long, as he's passed the point of no return.
While these flashback scenes can get repetitive and try to justify too many conscious choices as being the product of the environment, Knock on Any Door still boasts some poetic images both beautiful and horrifying. The initial tryst between Emma and Nick shows off Ray's melodramatic framing, a gift with which he was apparently born. Light shadows highlight the illicit nature of the virgin's affair with the thug but also its passion, while later their coldness toward each other reaches a haunting nadir when a pregnant Emma reaches her breaking point without any prior foreboding and a static shot placed at waist level shows her turning on the oven's gas to kill herself. Making this even more stunning is the equally troubling, and equally striking, shot of Nick, wanted by the cops, watching her funeral from afar, looking down from a rooftop in acute pain.
"Nobody knows how anybody feels," Nick snaps to Morton in his first flash of cynicism of the flashback. It's a pronouncement that, if true, means the trial going on back in the present is a lost cause, as Morton's case relies entirely on empathy, but that teenage sense of isolation is already belied by Ray's empathetic, perspective-oriented direction. Still, faced with someone like Kerman (George Macready), the prosecuting district attorney and personification of the Establishment, Nick has a reason to feel the mainstream has ignored him without empathy. Morton's argument is passionate, human and convincing, but Kerman dismantles him with almost personal zeal, using base insults and badgering to wear the kid down. Morton, more so than Nick, is the film's tragic hero, a man absorbed by the system who still wants to show people perspectives outside it, but he's in even less a position to change minds than Nick.
Small, human moments tend to directly follow huge explosions of drama in this film, from the horribly serene funeral after the botched robbery to Morton humbly changing his client's plea after Kerman's hounding of Nick gets the intended result. With the truth revealed, Morton's arguments now feel small rather than passionate, Bogart's slumped shoulders as he looks up at the bench making him look even smaller as Ray uses a wide-angle lens to push out the background, further isolating and minimizing the lawyer. Ray's final shots are some of the best in cinema, the (often ironic) visual equivalent of Billy Wilder's gift for summarizing punchlines, and the last image of Knock on Any Door is one of his most troubling. As guards march Nick toward his doom, Morton stands in the foreground, the diagonal slits of light creating a two-dimensional steps to the gallows, as it were. Nick's final look back only punctuates the sense of fatalism and woe, and suddenly the land of opportunity seems as oppressive and unforgiving as the regime it devoted everything to fighting after WWII.