In 1949, Columbia Pictures brought Willard Motley’s 1947 novel Knock on Any Door to the big screen in a feature film directed by Nicholas Ray. It’s the story of a young juvenile delinquent named Nick Romano (John Derek) who’s accused of killing a cop at point blank range and the attorney who agrees to take his case (against the advice of his law partners), Andrew Morton (Humphrey Bogart). Door has its admirers and detractors; I’m fond of the movie as a Bogart fan, and it’s long been of interest to those cinephiles who consider themselves members-in-good-standing in the Nicholas Ray cult (it’s kind of a precursor to the director’s classic Rebel Without a Cause ). (Not the strongest film Ray ever directed…but I’d watch Door again over A Woman’s Secret  any day of the week.)
Motley’s third novel (published in 1958) was a sequel to Knock on Any Door, and was released by the same studio eleven years later: Let No Man Write My Epitaph examines the troubled history of Nick’s progeny (also named Nick, and played by James Darren), a son born out of wedlock by one of Romano’s girlfriends, played by Shelley Winters. Sadly, mom Nellie and Nick, Jr. reside in the same West Hamilton neighborhood in the Windy City, and the prognosis of the younger Nick making something out of his life does not look positive. But the kid has a loving surrogate family, made up of former jurist Bruce Mallory Sullivan (Burl Ives); Flora (Ella Fitzgerald), a saloon chanteuse; cabbie Max (Rodolfo Acosta); ex-pugilist “Goodbye” George (Bernie Hamilton); prostitute Fran (Jeanne Cooper); and amputee-newshawk Wart (Walter Burke).
The audience gets a glimpse of Nick’s childhood at the beginning of Epitaph (young Nick is played by Michael Davis), and then the film fast-forwards to his high school years. Like his father, Nick often has difficulty staying out of trouble…and hopes his occasional lapses into juvenile delinquency won’t deter him from his dream of becoming a musician (Nellie has worked in a number of clip joints in order to support her son and pay for piano lessons to boot). Sullivan, a disgraced judge who’s descended into an alcoholic haze, uses his connections to secure a patron for Nick in the form of lawyer Grant Holloway (Philip Ober), whose daughter Barbara (Jean Seberg) takes a shine to Nick. However, Nick’s career plans are threatened by his mother’s involvement with Louis Ramponi (Ricardo Montalban), a hood whose flower shop is merely a front for his real business: dope peddling.
The theme of how environment can dictate the direction of one’s path in life is explored in Epitaph as it was in Door; Door emphasized how Nick, Sr. was a good kid from the slums (lawyer Morton hails from a similar background, which is why he agrees to take Romano’s case) who just never got the breaks in life. The ambiguity of the two films, however, is present in the suggestion that one’s genes may be the triumphant winner in the fifteen-round bout of Nature vs. Nurture. In Door, Nick, Sr.’s father was previously on trial for a self-defense killing (Bogart’s Morton botched that trial—resulting in the man’s death while he was still behind bars—which is the second reason why he defends Derek’s Romano), and that seems to suggest that the males in the Family Romano are predisposed to run-ins with the gendarmes.
Epitaph (at least the movie version—it might be different in the novel, which I have not read) also commits a couple of glaring continuity errors in the course of its narrative. Nellie Romano continues to believe that Nick, Sr. was innocent of the cop’s murder in Door, forgetting that Romano eventually confesses to the deed while on the stand. (One could argue, of course, that Nellie continues to blindly believe in Nick’s innocence regardless of what the facts dictate.) The character of Holloway is referenced as the public defender in Nick, Sr.’s trial, but I don’t remember the senior Romano having any other lawyer but Morton in Door (again, it’s possible they changed the name of the Holloway character from the novel).
Aside from these nitpicks—and the casting of twenty-four-year-old James Darren as a high school student (yes, I know he was under contract to Columbia, but really—“Moondoggie” as a teenage hood?)—Let No Man Write My Epitaph is a most worthwhile movie, a film whose unavailability on DVD is a crime in itself (I thought it had never been released on home video at all but this Amazon listing proves me wrong). Its disappointing box office performance might be the reason Epitaph has slipped through the cracks, but my advice is to resist all that hooey; the supporting cast alone is worth the price of admission. Several people around the Internets describe this feature film as a “film noir”…but apart from the crime angle, it’s stretching the definition a bit. It’s more of a social drama, with an interesting theme of redemption and an admirable portrayal of how people from disparate elements of society can effectively band together to form a surrogate family.
The big casting “get” in Epitaph was Shelley Winters, fresh off her Oscar triumph for The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). Winters gives a great performance, but she was also instrumental in convincing the filmmakers that James Darren, Burl Ives, Jean Seberg, Ella Fitzgerald and Bernie Hamilton be cast in their supporting roles. (Shel also wanted George C. Scott to play the part of the sebaceous pusher ultimately essayed by Ricardo Montalban…but she came up short on that score.) Singer Fitzgerald gives one of the truly impressive performances in Epitaph, as a heroin-addicted saloon singer (the scene where she begs Ives for the needed money to get a fix is quietly effective). I also admired Hamilton’s turn as the ex-boxer, though I was sort of uncomfortable in that his efforts to save Darren’s Nick from a gang of street punks resulted in his return to the pokey (there was a law on the books at that time that being hit by a prizefighter constituted “assault with a deadly weapon”).
Burl Ives’ performance as the down-and-out Judge Sullivan is a marvel. The winner of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Big Country (1958), Ives was responsible for an impressive string of performances in its wake including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (though technically released before Country) and Day of the Outlaw. His character possesses a nice sense of melancholy in that he’s pined for Winters’ character for many years; I didn’t even mind too much that his presence suggests if only single mom Shelley could land herself a man everything would be hunky-dory. In addition, I enjoyed spotting TDOY fave Percy Helton (as the man who runs the flophouse where Ives resides) and Frank Sully, not to mention Dal McKennon (as a court clerk) and Francis De Sales.
Directed by Philip Leacock, a British filmmaker who had had recent U.S. success with Take a Giant Step (1959) and The Rabbit Trap (1959); he works wonders with Robert Presnell, Jr’s (Man in the Attic, A Life in the Balance) adapted screenplay. Admittedly, I’m more familiar with Leacock’s work on the small screen; he helmed any number of classic episodes from the likes of Route 66 and Gunsmoke, as well as made-for-TV efforts such as When Michael Calls (1972) and The Daughters of Joshua Cabe (1972). (Please don’t judge me.) Epitaph is considered one of Leacock’s best films, and if you’ve not seen this movie—and your cable system carries the digital channel getTV—I urge you to catch this one this afternoon at 4:30 EDT. (There will be encore showings on June 14 [7:30am EDT], June 18 [1pm EDT], June 27 [9:35am EST] and June 29 [10:35am EDT].) AT&T U-Verse unfortunately doesn’t carry getTV (boo hiss), but I was lucky to be able to see Let No Man Write My Epitaph (it’s been on my must-see list for many years) thanks to Cindy Ronzoni at getTV—many, many effusive thanks to her.