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Nicholas Ray's Knock on Any Door and Why I Love Turner Classic Movies

by Dave heaton

If movies can be viewed a type of multidimensional, in-motion visual sculpture, using images of people, places, light and color in place of more tangible materials, then the opening scene of Nicholas Ray's Knock On Any Door can be viewed as a masterpiece of the art. The scene depicts a plain series of events. A man holds up a bar and runs away; the police chase him and, during the chase a shoot-out ensues. The man shoots a police officer dead and escapes, without his identity revealed. It's a simple event, one shown many times over in film as well as literature, television, etc. Here it's shown quickly, but from a series of perspectives which get across what happens and what the entire atmosphere of the setting is like, in a small amount of time. A bustling street scene cuts to a close-up of the eye of a whistling policeman, which leads to a shot of people running away from a bar as the police run inside. The camera moves to the bottom of stairs, looking up as police officers search for the man. Then quickly to the back of the building, as the police appear on one set of stairs while the shadow of a man jumps off another set of stairs on to the street. A police sergeant on foot sees the man and chases him; your standard shoot-out scene happens, cut to a woman's close-up scream as she sees the dead sergeant; then the man slipping away into the darkness. This is a short scene told through shots and cuts; it'd be a perfect example for a study in film editing. It's a scene filled with details, created by a director who is a master of details, who uses brilliant photography and fantastic actors to tell stories that are trimmed down to their essences.

Knock On Any Door (1949) stars John Derek as Nick Romero, a man charged with the crime of holding up a bar and shooting a police officer. For help he turns to an old acquaintance, lawyer Andrew Martin, played by Humphrey Bogart. After the opening scene, the film depicts the police search for the killer. As they round up anyone they can find with an arrest record, they eventually settle on Romero, who has been convicted of several previous crimes. Romero consults Martin, a lawyer who has represented him before but has grown tired defending someone he views as a hoodlum who's never going to change his bad habits. After Martin takes a trip around the city, interviewing potential witnesses and Romero's friends who serve as his alibi, he decides to take the case.

The film quickly moves to the trial, using Martin's opening statements as a springboard for an extended series of flashbacks. Martin's statements (and therefore the flashbacks) tell Romero's life story in order to suggest both that Romero turned to crime as a young man because of the poverty and unstable family from which he came and that he has since sworn off crime and is a changed man. These flashbacks depict a common story, that of a well-meaning lower-class boy who gets drawn into petty crime in order to get some money. He is caught, put in a brutal reform school and comes out a hardened, cynical individual whose motto is "Live fast, die young, have a beautiful corpse."

The film jumps between flashbacks and the trial, eventually settling on the trial for the last portion of the movie, an intense courtroom drama. Though at first it seems like your typical crime movie, with your standard tough-guy characters and occasionally dips into melodrama, Knock On Any Door is actually both a masterful example of that genre and a film that delves into serious issues not touched on in most genre pictures. This is a film about crime in society: why it happens and what we should do about it. It looks for the causes of crime and ultimately points a finger firmly at society. This is not your usual good guy/bad guy stuff, but an intelligent, moving drama about justice, responsibility and forgiveness.

What's amazing is not only the way that this film gently but smartly probes into issues, but the fact that this is a film straight out of big-studio Hollywood, something that seems odd given the cookie-cutter product generally produced by such studios today. Nicholas Ray is a director who managed to work right in the middle of Hollywood and still produce artistic, subversive films.

It's interesting to me that, given Bogart's stature as a Hollywood legend, I wasn't familiar with this film until I came across it on TV, on Turner Classic Movies. You'd think any Bogart film would be a household name by now, but it isn't so. Another example is Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place, a dark mysterious drama starring Bogart as an eccentric writer suspected of murder. Yet both of these films are shown rather frequently on Turner Classic Movies, which is why I love that channel so much. As resistant as I was at first to a channel named after the multimillionaire who wanted to colorize movies (a trend that thankfully didn't last long), this channel is a fantastic showcase for the great films of Hollywood's past that were mostly lost in the shuffle. One week in September, TCM showed not only Knock On Any Door and In a Lonely Place, but also a few Nicholas Ray films that are, to the best of my knowledge, completely unavailable on video: Party Girl, A Woman's Secret, Born to Be Bad and They Live By Night. During the same month they had a showcase of the French New Wave which also included films not widely available on video (if available at all), including Jean-Luc Godard's early films Le Petit Soldat and Les Carabiniers. So while Knock On Any Door is a film to look for in your cable listings, there's probably many more than I don't even recognize as gems but are.

Issue 3, October 2000 | next article

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