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Humphrey Bogart For the Defense—Knock on Any Door

By Michael Asimow, UCLA Law School (January 1998)

Humphrey Bogart fans (a group which surely includes all who visit this site) shouldn’t overlook Knock on Any Door (Columbia 1949). In this film, Bogart plays lawyer Andrew Morton, a tough, skilled, and idealistic lawyer. Most of the great stars get to play a lawyer at one time or another; Knock on Any Door gave Bogart his chance. His portrayal of Andrew Morton is outstanding and inspiring. Morton’s unswerving and self-sacrificing commitment to an unsavory client serves as a model for all lawyers.

Morton clawed his way out of the slums to complete night law school, got his start by practicing criminal law, and finally has worked his way into a respectable property law practice. Indeed, his blue-blooded bosses are about to make him a partner when a voice from the past—that of his old client Pretty Boy Romano—yanks him back to his personal and professional roots. Romano, a thug played by John Derek, lives by the motto that all of us can embrace: live fast, die young, and have a good looking corpse.

Years ago, Morton’s office defended Romano’s father. Morton was busy and delegated the work to an associate who muffed it. Romano’s father went to prison where he died before Morton could help him. This disaster shoved Romano’s family into dire poverty and Romano himself into gangs and ultimately life as a career criminal. Morton always blamed himself. He spent years trying to atone for his mistake by helping Romano, both personally and professionally. Romano tries to go straight but after his wife’s suicide, he sticks up a bar; as he flees, he shoots and kills a policeman.

Romano pleads with Morton to defend him and Morton just can’t turn him down, even though doing so costs him his cherished law firm partnership. Romano, of course, professes his innocence of the crime; Morton doesn’t know whether to believe him or not but he undertakes the defense. The whole sad history of the relationship between Morton and Romano and his family is developed during a series of flashbacks during Morton’s opening statement.

The slam-bang trial scenes take up a substantial part of the movie and are quite effective dramatically. Both DA Kerman and Morton are highly aggressive in their tactics, although the rules of evidence take some big hits. Morton does quite well in sowing reasonable doubt. He also pulls off a nifty courtroom trick in discrediting the bartender as an eye witness. Inexplicably, for an experienced criminal who should know better, Romano insists on taking the stand against Morton’s advice. And even more implausibly, he disintegrates under Kerman’s super-aggressive cross-examination.

Now Morton’s only hope is to argue against the death penalty. He dismisses the jury and pleads Romano guilty, hoping the judge can be talked out of the ultimate penalty. This is the same maneuver attempted by Clarence Darrow (memorably played by Orson Welles) in Compulsion. Defending thrill-killers Leopold and Loeb, Darrow dwelt on the inhumanity of the death penalty. Morton takes a different tack. His emotional argument is based on a sort of sociological determinism. Given the terrible conditions in the slums, it was inevitable that Romano would turn to a life of crime. "Knock on any door," Morton argues, and you’ll find another potential Pretty Boy Romano. To preserve a bit of suspense, we won’t disclose here whether this ploy is successful in saving Romano from the chair.

Bogart appears in two other law films. He plays Captain Queeg in the immortal The Caine Mutiny (Columbia 1954), where he collapses under Barney Greenwald’s reluctant but penetrating cross examination. And he has a rather weak role as a crusading district attorney (supposedly based on Thomas E. Dewey) in Marked Woman (Warner Brothers 1937). Marked Woman was a star vehicle for Bette Davis and is interesting to Bogart fans because Mayo Methot played one of the group of prostitutes depicted in the film. It was her last major role, while Bogart’s career was just taking off. Bogart and Methot got married and the result was total disaster for both of them.

Knock on Any Door was Nicholas Ray’s directoral debut. The film was made by Bogart’s independent production company, Santana, after Bogart finally broke away from Warner Brothers. The film would have been far stronger if Marlon Brando had played Romano, as was originally planned, but Brando withdrew after the death of producer Mark Hellinger. Some of the material in this commentary was drawn from Bogart, the excellent biography by A. M. Sperber and Eric Lax.

Michael AsimowMichael Asimow, of UCLA Law School, is co-author with Paul Bergman of Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies (1996), available at local bookstores or through amazon.com.


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