A hero of the French New Wave, director Nicholas Ray was one of several filmmakers whose work inspired the writers of Cahiers du Cinema to develop the auteur theory. Despite taking its knocks since the 1950s, the theory has left a permanent mark on cinematic criticism and appreciation, and no film writer can ignore it —even if they don’t agree with it.
Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive’s current series On Dangerous Ground: The Cinema of Nicholas Ray is predicated on the efficacy of the theory – and it would be hard to argue against the stylistic and thematic consistency of Ray’s work when comparing the evidence seen in They Live By Night (previously featured in the Archive’s 2015 series, The Cinema According to Victor Erice, and screening at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 22), and in one of his best and most challenging features, Knock on Any Door, screening at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 21, and again at 4:15 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 22.
A poster child of sorts for the socially conscious ‘problem pictures’ of the immediate post-war years, Knock stars Humphrey Bogart as Andrew Morton, an attorney whose previous experience defending young tough Nick ‘Pretty Boy’ Romano (John ‘future husband of Bo’ Derek) has left him feeling once bitten, twice shy.
Romano, charged with the back-alley shooting death of a police officer, and desperate to beat the rap (and insistent about his innocence), practically begs Morton to take his case. Reluctantly, Morton signs up despite the long-term damage it may do to his career.
His search for exculpatory evidence begins on Skid Row, where Ray isn’t shy about recording the travails of the city’s drunks and down-and-outers. Men sleep slumped in doorways; others drink their lives away in pool halls. Knock on Any Door has the look and feel of a Walker Evans photograph or a Nelson Algren story, anticipating Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm by half a decade.
As in They Live by Night, the story partially revolves around the relationship between its protagonist and his ill-starred but loyal wife, here played to perfection by Allene Roberts (still with us at 88!). Roberts had previously portrayed a similar character opposite Edward G. Robinson and Rory Calhoun in Delmer Dave’s unique melodrama The Red House (1947), and her star-crossed performance here is particularly poignant.
One of Knock on Any Door‘s most refreshing aspects is its willingness to put Nick’s fate largely in the hands of his friends Juan (Pepe Hern) and Jim (Davis Roberts). Juan is Hispanic, Jim African-American; both roles are played straight and avoid the racial stereotyping that would have defined their characters prior to and during World War II.
Best of all, Knock on Any Door refuses to play by the rulebook. Not only does the film push the envelope as far as it could have been pushed in 1949 (how did screenwriters Daniel Taradash and John Monks, Jr. thread the Breen Office needle and get the word ‘prostitute’ approved not once, but twice?), it’s a film with a genuine final reel surprise up its sleeve. If you’ve never seen it, prepare for a shock!