Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Notes: Knock on Any Door

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.


LTS said...


Since you make reference near the end of your post to Ray's "final visual critique," I will take the opportunity to ask an abstruse (and probably naive) question: What is the point, significance, or benefit of making one's critique visual in the first place? My question is primarily provocative, but at its most basic level, all it is really asking is this: Why should a filmmaker go to the trouble of putting ideas into images?

In particular, I want to recall the words of Hitchcock to a mildly exercised Ingrid Bergman: "It's only a movie, Ingrid." Working from that premise -- since I like to read into Ray's work certain affinities with that of the Master of Suspense(!) -- is not the force of any "visual critique" undercut by its being embedded in what I might reductively call a "crime drama," even before the viewer (in this case 'Holla) recognizes in an image of the film some aspect that is "critical?" Put another way, how can we redeem Ray's visual commentary from the fate of the After-School-Special Syndrome?

If I can be permitted to continue with this extended digression, I might be willing to grant that any "visual critique" or "visual commentary" might constitute something *extra*, in addition to the film-maker's craft and the force of the narrative and imagery in their own right, but I guess the issue I'm trying to get at (probably not very successfully in this first post) is the difficulty in analyzing a fundamentally conventional American film for something *extra* (e.g., "legitimate" moral content), to say nothing of something *profound* (e.g., aesthetic unity).

Of course, I suspect Ray's films transcend such categorizations as "fundamentally conventional" or even "American" -- perhaps Holla' would like to discuss the myriad ways -- but one has to admit that such reductive concepts greatly facilitate some of the reductive questions I'd like to explore.

PS: My bro' said something interesting tonight -- according to him, he'd like to tell certain people, "Come talk to me when you think you understand Michael Bay and not before. You can't hope to understand anything more complex if you haven't understood his films first." Similar sentiments probably motivate the posing of potentially useless (but I hope also potentially useful) questions such as the ones I raised in this feeble post.

Holla! back...

Cinema Journal said...

First off, thanks LT for the response, it raised a lot of issues that are well worth thinking about. Here is my first thought, and I hope to post more (and feel free to add more!).

You write, "What is the point, significance, or benefit of making one's critique visual in the first place? "

So much of our culture is based on visual elements that it would be neglectful of Ray to avoid critiques of it in his film. Even Hawthorn's "The Scarlet Letter" delves into the visual nature of our biases and categorical judgments - the linking of red with adultery; the grey prison in conjunction with the greenery outside the walls. Think of our day-to-day life - so much is invested into clothing styles; they seem to correspond to certain social and economic classes. The visual and the ethical are inexorable.

In the context of Ray's film, I felt that the "visual" element corresponded to the "thematic" issues - morality, hypocrisy - which were a nice touch by Ray. It shows not the virtuosity of the camera, but exercises emotionally, as well as intellectually, the possibilities on a photographic level. (Murnau always said the perfect film needed no titles, referring to silent films, but perhaps in general to words).