Knock on Any Door’s notions of masculinity seem to be irretrievably enmeshed with ideas about “good” and “bad” men and to discourses about crime, violence, and the question of whether society or the individual should be blamed for how a person (a man) turns out. The three Nicholas Ray films we have seen so far have shown an intense preoccupation with the life of crime and the influence of a person’s past on their present. Ray seems to be advocating an ambiguous and dualistic stand on criminals, rather like his bi-fold notion of masculinity, which is split between an active and a gentle notion. Furthermore, this sense of ambiguous doubling also manifests itself in the paralleling and contrasting figures of the young and the old man, another thematic and formal means of exploring and relating these two notions of masculinity and these two notions or treatments of criminality.
Though Rebel Without A Cause, They Live By Night, and now Knock On Any Door all deal with delinquents and criminals, Nicholas Ray makes a point to show these “criminals’” humanity; he forces the audience to enter these worlds of night, of shadow, of liminality and transience, of hiding from the law, thereby inviting identification and sympathy between audiences and these “bad” criminals condemned by society. We see Nick Romano put into project housing with his newly fatherless family and we see him and his friends turn to stealing because, as they flatly say, “they’re poor.” We also see him with his young wife Emma, earnestly trying to work and live straight and ultimately giving in to the life he knows, the life society offered him.
Just as Nicholas Ray refuses to draw black-and-white distinctions between good and evil, between criminal and citizen, so too does he fail to privilege one form of masculinity over the other. Here, violence can affect and infect anyone and everyone, and though one may not deserve to die for his violent past, such a violent end often meets them anyway, like Nick and Bowie. At times Nick Romano embodies the values of caring, love, and emotion which make him a good husband to Emma, and yet the violent side of him, the lure of his past on the streets, pulls him back. Ultimately, he is put to death by the system which feels sorry for him, which even perhaps shares some of the blame for his fate (as Bogart’s closing monologue makes gharishly clear), and yet which cannot grant such begged-for mercy.
Knock On Any Door productively uses the two main male characters Morton and Nick as foils: old versus young, father figure versus mentored child, professional lawyer versus jobless hoodlum. But despite such contradictions, importantly, these two men share a common delinquent past, youths spent on the streets and in the traumatizing, violent-making reform schools, as well as the same sort of active type of masculinity. Therefore, what distinguishes these two “lusty” type of men is the way in which they respond to and take responsibility for their past, which ultimately becomes associated with their own brand of masculinity and Ray’s ambiguity.
Morton, played by the brusque and grumbling, yet eloquent, no-nonsense Humphrey Bogart, espouses the idea, from his own personal background, that a man should be able to pull himself up by his own bootstraps, so to speak. He has to inherently be the “type of man” who would want to get himself out of his situation, who is personally capable of changing his life of crime. If he did it, then why can’t Nick? As he says of Nick in the beginning of the film, “That guy’s a hoodlum who doesn’t want to be anything else,” believing such a man to be undeserving of further help, and even believing such things to be wholly a matter of choice. Even after he takes Nick fishing as a too-little-too-late kind of therapy, Morton’s worst suspicions are confirmed when Nick steals from him: “You’re just a tin-horned thug and you always will be. You haven’t got the guts to be anything else!” he tells him.
And yet, as the film makes very clear and as Morton himself comes to realize in defending Nick, a man is not only individually accountable for his past and his life; the social structure which raises and creates a man is also responsible, and such influence is not always possible to overcome by sheer willpower or “courage.” Nick’s father was killed by the system (which failed) and he was left to be raised by the street, to find criminal friends who were his only companionship, his only male role models, and who provided the only way of surviving. For as Sunshine poignantly asks, “how can a guy be happy and poor at the same time?” This system then sent Nick and his pals to a reform school “based on fear,” which killed Jimmy and created violent, hateful men out of the small-time delinquent kids who went in, only exacerbating the problem and ensuring these boys’ continuing criminal future.
So just as there are not only the good lawyers and the bad criminals, the guilty people of the streets and the innocent people in nice houses, in Nicholas Ray films the dualistic notion of masculinity as both active and emotional coexist and conflict within a man. So too, is a man both accountable for his past and its influence on his present as well as victim to the forces of society and fate, which can push his destiny towards positive “creation,” or towards a “life like Nick’s.” For indeed, knock on any door and you may find Nick Romano.
Additional Note: The film makes a point to tell audiences that Nick Romano, played by John Derick, is “pretty,” a description which goes hand in hand with his youth, “baby face” also characterizing him throughout the film. These two traits define both his masculinity and the way he is seen by men and women. The film, with absolute bluntness, shows Nick’s romantic effect on women, and the way his looks can make men uneasy. The prosecutor especially not only wants to prove Nick guilty and win his case, but also to defeat the young kid who is more handsome and presumably better liked by the ladies. Regardless of how true this actually is, the man’s own awareness of the issue, which is what really matters anyway, becomes most apparent when he covers the scar on his face with his hand while contemptuously asking Nick from his authoritative position of power whether he is “the pretty one,” telling him not to look at the female jury, but right at him, making it a fight between men. What is also noteworthy and potentially alarming about Nick’s well-established good looks is the way that it makes him, along with his youth, even more of a media sensation; people are scandalized and interested in not only the possibility of an execution, but the alluring life of crime and violence that this pretty young boy has been leading. But it is not only the readers of the film’s newspapers who are guilty of such sensationalism and macabre interests, but director Nicholas Ray himself as well as all of the spectators of the Hollywood movies which also sold sensational stories of youth, crime and passion embodied by attractive studio actors.