Knock On Any Door opens with the murder of a policeman in New York City. Nick Romano (John Derek) is arrested for the crime. Nick is a troubled young man who has grown up in the slums and is fond of saying that his goal is to “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.” Now on trial for his very life, Nick reaches out to lawyer Andrew Morton (Humphrey Bogart), who once unsuccessfully defended Nick’s father in a similar criminal trial. At first, Morton wants nothing to do with Nick but he changes his mind, partially out of guilt over Nick’s father and partially because Morton himself came from the same slums that produced Nick. Even as the district attorney (George Macready) goes for blood, Morton argues that Nick isn’t a menace but instead a victim of a society that left him with little choice but to become a criminal.
Knock Any Door is heavy-handed but, for fans of Humphrey Bogart and Nicholas Ray, this is an essential film. Bogart produced this film himself and the subject matter was very important to him. Bogart, the classic tough guy with a heart of gold, gives one of his best performances, delivering his closing statement with such conviction that it is impossible not to be moved. Though Ray’s direction is often heavy-handed and the courtroom scenes are sometimes too stagey, Knock On Any Door sees him exploring the same themes that he would later explore in Rebel Without a Cause and with the empathy that made that later film a classic.