NICHOLAS RAY: Part III
Despite their reputations, some films and filmmakers just don't do it for the writers of The Pink Smoke. This series, Second Chances, follows Funderburg and Cribbs in their attempts to find greatness where they've previously failed to see it; to actively make an effort to appreciate esteemed artworks for which they currently have a distaste (or feel indifference). They'll give cult favorites like Let the Right One In another shot and dig deep in the filmographies of beloved auteurs whose appeal baffles them (like Nicholas Ray) - and with a little luck, maybe they'll even emerge as newly-minted fans...
<< click here for Nicholas Ray: Part I >>
<< click here for Nicholas Ray: Part II>>
<< click here for Nicholas Ray: Part IV>>
Knock on any Door
Sort of a dry run for Rebel without a Cause's whiny teen angst, this film at least features some actual delinquent behavior. Framed by a courtroom oratory delivered by compassionate lawyer (and – gasp! - reformed hoodlum) Humphrey Bogart, the story follows a young renegade who revolts for no reason, his lifetime of rabble-rousing and perfidy resulting in a cop-killing. But Bogart knows the cruelties of an Indifferent Society are the cause for his rebellion: our hero Nick Romano would go straight if only society would let him, but his anxiety and frustration over money and family and the future and hopelessness is killing him – this Weltschmerz is tearing him apart! Something about a pretty boy whose callous posturing exterior belies a tender soul must've struck a chord with Ray because he returned to the material and suburbanized it a scant six years later – or maybe teenagers who think their life is SO GODDAMNED HARD LEAVE ME ALONE always have a ready place on cinema screens.
The Bogart frame is pretty enjoyable and his sensitive world-weariness is put to great use as the lawyer who "knows what it's like out there" and sees a glint of humanity in this poor immigrant kid who never stood a chance on these mean streets. His plotline generally revolves around his romance with a pretty social worker – she was assigned to Romano's family back before the troubled clan started to fall apart and throughout the film she goads Bogie to intervene on the boy's behalf. There's a good scene early on where she convinces Bogart to take a call from Romano – he argues against her for a minute or so, offering up reason after reason why he just wants to stay out of it and doesn't owe the kid a thing. She convinces him otherwise – wordlessly, with an unchanging expression. Their charming cynic versus idealist interplay is peppered throughout the film like someone stuck part of Ninotchka in the middle of White Heat. It sounds like it wouldn't work, but it really doesn't hurt the film to incorporate some of their witty exchanges:
Hot social worker: "If I were a cynic, I'd just hang myself."
Bogart: "I couldn’t trust the rope."
As with In a Lonely Place, Bogart is the best thing about the film and his scenes juice the narrative along every time it gets bogged down in the repetitive scenes of hard knock life. The guy playing "Pretty Boy" Nick Romano is indeed one pretty boy, but he plays everything in that cheeseball Classic Hollywood Melodrama style and, as a result, we're once again treated to a film that has "cheesy" and "awkward" as two apt descriptors. In some regards, Ray reminds me a little bit of another Cahiers du Cinema favorite, Samuel Fuller. Both filmmakers have their fundamentally dark and gritty approaches undercut by a habitual cheesiness: their films frequently feature a pervasive goofiness that dulls the hard-edged scenarios and characters in their stories. Knock on Any Door is an empathetic look at the gruesome social conditions like alcoholism, domestic abuse, segregation, rampant crime, lack of jobs and generalized hopelessness that lead to the creation of a cop-killer, for god's sake, but the film performances and writing and overall tone of the film are often truly silly. The film is emotionally over-the-top and completely tone-deaf to nuance while at the same time keeping the pace as brisk as possible. It ends with our hero being lead to the electric chair, but it's not exactly a devastating moment.
Ray almost certainly intends the ending to be an emotionally complex send-off a cold-blooded killer that's the sympathetic product of a rotten lot in life, but the in-court breakdown that is Romano's undoing is just the kind of cheap, idiotic theatrics that you would expect on an embarrassing tv drama. How can I take the ending seriously when its set-up is so relentlessly moronic? I’d categorize the film alongside John Cena's The Marine or Hot Lead and Cold Feet (or even Ray's own Bigger than Life) in that they're too enjoyable to ever call them "terrible" or even "ineffective." But they are as dumb as a sack of nails. I actually don't want to write with too much mean-spiritedness about Knock on Any Door because I did enjoy it for a diverting hour and a half. With an infectious brio, it unabashedly leans on clichés like the good women too weak to redeem our irredeemable hero and the hardened neighborhood no-goodniks who get our hero in over his head– the movie doesn't care how it holds your interest, so long as it does.
In fact, I would say that "shamelessness" is the film's main characteristic and, like the doomed romantic figure Nick Romano, it plays every angle, never developing a set personality long enough for you to really be able to define it. On the one hand, it plays up the "kid destroyed by society angle," but it's also quick to give Bogart stern speeches about how he made it out of the ghetto, so anything is possible in this great nation of ours. Like every other crime story, it ostensibly aims to decry vice and violence while hypocritically indulging in rousing scenes of just such behavior; thrilling heist set-pieces, sexy mistreatment of women, iconic quips about self-destruction delivered in exhilaratingly dangerous dives. It gives the audience clever, high-brow scenes of banter between Bogart and his lady-friend before cutting to grimy street-brawls. It's driven by a grim fatalism frequently punctured by swooning romantic interludes of pure, young love. It gives wide berth to Nick Romano’s angst and self-pity while simultaneously having wise and charismatic secondary characters demand that he buck up, man up, be a man, cowboy up.
Also, what's a burlap party?
It paints our social systems and the world of degrading manual labor as soul-crushing and then portrays social workers as paragons of virtue and honest hard work as the key to long life, happiness and wealth. It basks in the glow of Nick Romano's substantial physical beauty and than manipulates you into wishing this too pretty brat would get taken down a peg. The film knows all the angles and plays them with a wanton fervor that makes no moral distinction and has no coherent moral point of view. The film lacks a moral system for the same reason its hero lacks a moral system: it’s too concerned with just getting by to think about if or why it would do anything else. In many ways, that desultory slipshod point of view accurately captures the formative moment between adolescence and adulthood when our personalities are not set and we could become anything, so we are everything at all times, the moment just before we are twisted by reality into the person we will finally become. Maybe this film is a perfect prelude to Rebel without a Cause: it's the affectless embodiment of all of the histrionic, contradictory, self-serious, naïve, yearning qualities of teenagerdom.
I'm just curious: how does a burlap party kill you? Pneumonia? What's the task they're even supposed to be accomplishing down there
(continued on page 2 of "Second Chances: Nicholas Ray: Part III")
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