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Knock on Wood (DVD Review)

4 Oct, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Danny Kaye, Mai Zetterling, Torin Thatcher.

Relatively obscure these days yet substantially acclaimed at the time, Danny Kaye’s head-trippy spy romp deals in part with a ventriloquist’s dummy that loses verbal control and publicly embarrasses his ostensible human controller. The premise seems transparently inspired by the most famous segment (with Michael Redgrave) from 1945’s Dead of Night anthology, and the Kaye character just as obviously has problems that are psychological in nature, which is how he ends up seeing a pretty psychiatrist played by Mai Zetterling (who later went on to direct some gamey-for-their-day Swedish films beginning in the mid-1960s).

Leaving aside myriad kiddie matinee Westerns and Bowery Boys comedies, Knock is one of the first dozen or 15 ‘A’-pictures I saw theatrically as a child, and I recall that Kaye’s inability to control a wise-guy chunk of wood (who persists in insulting his girlfriend) made a big impression on me at age 6. It was probably the first movie I ever saw that dealt with psychiatry, and some of its backstory deals with severe developmental pain. In one of the movies’ best scenes, we see the Kaye character as a child enthralled in the wings as his vaudevillian parents perform the film’s title tune. Then, almost immediately, he’s shattered when dad and mom dance offstage and immediately get into their latest knockdown/drag-out. Thus, the Kaye character unable to commit to a woman.

You probably couldn’t construct an entire ’50s Hollywood musical comedy around material this dark, so the script by co-directors Norman Panama and Melvin Frank (Oscar-nominated in the story and screenplay category, though it understandably lost to On the Waterfront), throws in a plot about plans for a weapon of mass destruction being concealed in a pair of ventriloquist dummies. The set-up for all this (and multiple murders) tends to be a little labored, but the movie’s second half is full of set-pieces that show off the talents of a comic who was not only better looking than most — and also one who could sing, dance and probably mimic dialects better than any of his competition (including Jerry Lewis, who was probably his chief rival in the latter category).

In terms of his peers, Kaye is unusual in that his career does possess that one single picture — this would be the 1956 Panama and Frank follow-up The Court Jester — where he put it all together in a way that fans can still point to and say, “Here was the genius.” Bob Hope doesn’t have a movie that qualifies in this manner — nor did Red Skelton or Martin and Lewis (though Lewis solo does have The Nutty Professor, which does fill this bill). Knock is not on this level, but it does have some first-rate Kaye showcasing in an Irish pub (singing), car dealership (the newest dream auto has a button for everything — except for perhaps turning the ignition) and with a Russian ballet troupe (a wild number choreographed by Michael Kidd the same year as his 7 Brides for 7 Brothers triumph).
In addition to its writing nomination, the Paramount-released Knock made the New York Times 10-best list in a year when a lot of exceptional movies didn’t, which attests to the high regard in which it was once held. This Olive Films version letterboxes it, which is more than most of its TV showings have done. The color transfer, though, ranges from good in spots to occasionally smudgy, and the skin tones are too reddish much of the time. It isn’t a deal-breaker, but the presentation isn’t up to what Paramount itself distributes in terms of movies from the same era. But at least Paramount has licensed the film to someone else.

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