Knock on Any Door (1949): Nicholas Ray’s Juvenile Delinquence Film Noir, Starring Bogart and John Derek

From Our Vaults:

Nicholas Ray directed Knock on Any Door a Juvenile delinquency courtroom drama, with touches of film noir, starring Humphrey Bogart and John Derek in his breakthrough screen role.

Knock on Any Door

Theatrical release poster

The tale is based on the 1947 novel of the same name by Willard Motley.

Slick talking lawyer Andrew Morton takes the case of Nick Romano, a troubled punk from the slums, because he himself came from the same slums, and also because of feeling guilty for his partner botching the criminal trial of Nick’s father years earlier.

Nick, on trial for viciously killing a policeman, faces execution if convicted.  Nick’s history unfolds through flashbacks, showing him as a hoodlum committing one petty crime after another.

Morton’s wife Adele convinces him to play nursemaid to Nick in order to make Nick a better person. But Nick robs Morton of $100 after a fishing trip.

Nick marries Emma, and tries to change his lifestyle. He takes various jobs but keeps getting fired because of his recalcitrance. He wastes his paycheck playing dice, wanting to buy Emma some jewelry, and then walks out on another job after punching his boss.

Feeling hopeless of ever being able to live a normal life, Nick decides to return to his old ways and old motto: “Live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse.”  He leaves Emma, while knowing she is pregnant.

After he commits a botched hold-up at a train station, he returns to Emma, but finds out she had committed suicide by gas.

Morton’s strategy is to argue that slums breed criminals and that society (of which every member of the jury is part) is to blame for crimes committed by people who live in such miserable conditions. Morton argues that Romano is a victim of society and not a natural-born killer. Yet, his strategy does not have the desired effect on the jury, thanks to the badgering of the seasoned and experienced District Attorney Kernan, who delivers question after question until Nick shouts out his admission of guilt.

Morton proves to be naive to believe in his client’s innocence, and so he is shocked by Nick’s confession. Nick decides to change his plea to guilty. During the sentencing hearing, Morton arouses some sympathy for the plight of those in dead-end existence. He pleads: “If you knock on any door, you may find a Nick Romano.”

Nevertheless, Nick is sentenced to die in the electric chair. In the last scene, Morton visits Nick prior to execution and watches him walk the last mile.

Producer Mark Hellinger purchased the rights to “Knock on Any Door,” a novel by African American novelist Willard Motley, with Bogart and Brando in mind for the two starring roles. However, after Hellinger died in 1947, Robert Lord and Bogart formed a corporation, Santana Productions, named after Bogart’s private sailing yacht. Warner was upset, fearing that other stars would do the same and major studios would lose their power.

The often-repeated credo spoken by Nick Romano–“Live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse”—later become the “clarion call for a generation of disenfranchised youth.”

Treating criminality softly by blaming law-abiding society for its various ills was criticized by the press. Some saw it as pretentious social melodrama and blasted the film’s message. The justifications for the delinquencies  were inept and superficial, while the nature of the hoodlum is heroized.

In 1960 a sequel, Let No Man Write My Epitaph, was produced and directed by Philip Leacock, based on the 1958 novel of the same name by Willard Motley. It starred Burl Ives, Shelley Winters, and James Darren.

Humphrey Bogart as Andrew Morton
John Derek as Nick Romano
George Macready as Dist. Atty. Kerman
Allene Roberts as Emma
Candy Toxton as Adele Morton (credited as Susan Perry)
Mickey Knox as Vito
Barry Kelley as Judge Drake


Directed by Nicholas Ray
Screenplay by John Monks Jr., Daniel Taradash, based on Knock on Any Door (1947 novel) by Willard Motley
Produced by Robert Lord
Cinematography Burnett Guffey
Edited by Viola Lawrence
Music by George Antheil

Production company: Santana Productions

Distributed by Columbia Pictures

Release date: February 22, 1949 (NYC); March 17, 1949 (US)

Running time: 100 minutes
Box office $2.1 million


Cara Williams as Nelly Watkins
Jimmy Conlin as Kid Fingers
Sumner Williams as Jimmy
Sid Melton as “Squint” Zinsky
Pepe Hern as Juan Rodriguez
Dewey Martin as Butch
Davis Roberts as Jim ‘Sunshine’ Jackson
Houseley Stevenson as Junior
Vince Barnett as Bartender
Thomas Sully as Officer Hawkins
Florence Auer as Aunt Lena
Pierre Watkin as Purcell
Gordon Nelson as Corey
Argentina Brunetti as Ma Romano
Dick Sinatra as Julian Romano
Carol Coombs as Ang Romano
Joan Baxter as Maria Romano
Dooley Wilson as Piano player