Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Fritz Lang, 1956
Starring: Dana Andrews, Joan Fontaine, Sidney Blackmer, Arthur Franz

Tom Garrett, a writer, enters into a bargain with a newspaper publisher, Austin Spencer, who is also his future father-in-law. They decide that the subject of Tom’s next book will be the injustices of the death penalty and they frame Tom for the recent murder of a nightclub dancer, meticulously keeping track of their forged evidence. Tom is soon arrested, indicted, and the case goes to trial. Spencer was to reveal the ruse after Tom was found guilty and sentenced to death, but unfortunately Spencer dies suddenly in a car crash and takes the evidence with him. Though Tom reveals the scheme and protests his innocence, no one believes him except his estranged fiancĂ©e, Susan, who was not made a party to their scheme. While Tom is on death row, days away from his execution, Susan and a lawyer friend try desperately to find evidence that will exonerate Tom, which includes digging into the victim’s torrid past.

Fritz Lang’s last film in America was this bleak film about a journalist’s efforts to expose corruption in the justice system. Very little about this film is stylish and gone are the expressionist noir sensibilities of Scarlet Street or Secret Beyond the Door. Instead, Lang’s final two films for Hollywood, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and While the City Sleeps, are tawdry, lurid, bland, and utterly cynical. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is almost pulpy – before our eyes, Tom (Dana Andrews reuniting with Lang after While the City Sleeps) transforms from an upstanding, middle-class writer on the eve of his engagement to a rather stuffy, blonde debutant heiress into a bottom-feeding letch and murderer.

SPOILER ALERT. While Lang’s twist ending does feel preposterous, it makes more sense upon multiple viewings of the film. After Susan finds the evidence to exonerate Tom and grant his pardon, he accidentally reveals to her that he knew and thus murdered the dancer. A distraught Susan is unsure whether to go ahead with his pardon or not, but follows the advice of her lawyer ex-boyfriend and Tom is executed. The first time you watch Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, this ending comes as an absurd surprise. It’s impossible for me to find genuine fault with a Fritz Lang film, so I think this ending was created with three possibilities in mind. For starters, it could be a cruel joke perpetrated against stubborn, overly moral audiences by an angry Lang, who was shunted to the side by the studio system and McCarthyism. (In this case, Susan is a stand-in for the audience.)

A second, similar explanation is that Lang finally got revenge for all the years that Hollywood studios refused his intended ending during the script approval process, or made him cut and re-film them during production. Lang successfully does target the justice system (they enthusiastically convict an “innocent” man), but he also points a finger at the media and mob justice. Tom, as with most of Lang’s protagonists, first appears likable, but his corruptible, guilty core is revealed. Tom seems to be fundamentally changed by his brush with murder and the nightclub underworld. The revelation of his guilt begins to make sense, at least in a symbolic way. If you go back and watch the film again with this perspective, certain plot holes are more glaring, while others slide into place.

The film’s biggest flaw is probably the script, which is full of implausibility. Though Tom and Austin are criticizing and attempting to fix the justice system, they seemingly give no thought to bringing the actual murderer to justice. The evidence planting they do is preposterous and should have been uncovered almost immediately, particularly Tom’s lighter left at the crime scene, which was found after the body was recovered. Unless, of course, you take the angle that the police and politicians are simply desperate to find a culprit (and I am writing in a post-OJ Simpson world).

While Dana Andrews gives a solid performance (apparently his alcoholism was at its height during this time and was a serious source of consternation for Lang on set). Joan Fontaine (Rebecca) has never been one of my favorite actresses, but here she is simply tiresome. You can’t really blame her for walking out on Tom after a picture of him romancing nightclub dancers shows up in the paper, but she’s stiff, uptight, whiny, and insufferably moral.

My only other complaint is that the sense of style has been stripped away, leaving behind a gray, lifeless exterior, though perhaps this was intentional. The scenes of Tom’s trial being screened on television are a fascinating touch, which Lang also used to different degrees in While the City Sleeps. He also expertly fades certain scenes into newspaper headlines, making this as much about media as justice. Despite its flaws, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt comes recommended and is available remastered on DVD. Any film of Lang’s is certainly worth watching.

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