There has been a commotion in this deprived area of the city tonight, one where a robbery was botched and an investigating policeman was shot dead as a result. His colleagues round up some suspects, among them the most likely culprit, a young punk called Nick Romano (John Derek), who has been in trouble with the law before, but he professes his innocence and asks to call a lawyer of his acquaintance, a man who has gotten him out of scrapes before. That man is Andrew Morton (Humphrey Bogart), but initially he is reluctant to be involved, for he has been let down by Nick too many times. But his wife (Candy Toxton) silently pleads with him to take the case, and he relents...
Knock On Any Door was what was known as a problem picture, not because it was a problem to make or watch, but because it dealt with social issues, the sort of thing star Bogart had been involved with before during the heyday of the gangster movie which usually had a message to impart to the audience about building a better community. Therefore it was natural for him to pick the book this was based on as the first project for his shortlived Santana production company, which released seven films from this to Beat the Devil in a matter of four years; for some stars, their very own company might have been considered a vanity project, but Bogart seems to have been very serious about its output.
He hired up-and-coming director Nicholas Ray to helm this, slotting into his resumé of films where he preferred to deal with social problems, the most famous of which was Rebel Without a Cause, for which you could view Knock On Any Door as a loose dry run for that James Dean favourite. Alas, John Derek was no James Dean, and down the years viewers have had trouble warming to his Nick character as he was so inconsistently written that he was difficult to trust: by the end he's more of a symbol of the terrible effect crime can have both personally and in a wider sense for the nation, which didn't leave much room for nuance. Derek tried a career as a leading man and won a following thanks to his brooding good looks, but never really caught on.
Which is why if you recognise his name it will be down to his relationships with his famous wives who he liked to present as world-beating sex symbols, Ursula Andress who didn't particularly need the assistance, then Linda Evans who would go on to TV fame in Dynasty, earning her more renown than Derek ever offered her, then most infamously Bo Derek for whom his plans finally came to fruition in his self-directed efforts. OK, they were a laughing stock cinematically, but they were successful, and it was nice he made someone's dreams come true after decades of trying, if only his own. Looking back on his acting, you can see why he never made it as a star himself; on this evidence, his handsomeness aside there wasn't much too appealing about him.
Given better roles, of which Nick would have been a step in the right direction seeing as how with this flashback-heavy framework he's basically the protagonist, then Derek might have made a decent fist of celebrity, but when you're sharing a movie with a performer of the charisma of Bogart then you're chasing a futile goal if you want to be the main draw since all the time Derek was on the screen acting out his hard luck tale you found yourself wondering when Bogie was going to reappear. In effect this was a courtroom drama which used the flashback technique to fill in backstory to what they hoped would be typically how a young criminal is made: poor upbringing, deprived conditions, unsympathetic society, but taking that last into account Morton treats him very well and he still slips into lawbreaking, suggesting the answers were far more insurmountable than perhaps the film was trying to convey. With George Macready cobra-like as the prosecutor, there were nice acting moments and its heart was in the right place, but you were not wholly convinced. Music by George Antheil.