I just finished watching Nicholas Ray's Knock on Any Door, which featured Humphrey Bogart in the lead as a lawyer defending a young boy from the slums accused of shooting a cop. Typical of Ray's work, the film takes the stance that context is responsible for action: society dictates who is good and who is bad. Both Bogart's character and the young boy remind me of older and younger versions of other Ray protagonists: Farley Granger in They Live by Night, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men. They all share a common fate, one they had no choice over. Their tough guy lifestyles were the result of survival, not of an inherent nature.
Ray's last shot is so telling of the forces behind the characters, of the moral constructs that alienate people into disparate situations, elevate some to great heights, and abandon others to desolate lives. After the young boy has confessed to murdering the cop he is sentenced to death. It is a long shot, with Bogart standing in the foreground off to the side, and with the words THE END superimposed over the single, long take. The boy is center frame, being led down a jail corridor to an open door at the end, where he is to be executed. In the open door is a bright light, something that escapes the exposure of the camera. The bring light at the end of the tunnel uses the same iconography so often associated with heaven. Ray's visual connection highlights the presence of morality that lies behind the situation: hypocrisy and judgment, antipathy and abandonment. Ray's final visual critique, much like Bogart's final statement, is a denouement of contemporary morays, and a call for a reassessment of our values.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.