BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (1956) B/W widescreen 80m dir: Fritz Lang
w/Dana Andrews, Joan Fontaine, Sidney Blackmer, Arthur Franz, Philip Bourneuf, Edward Binns, Shepperd Strudwick, Robin Raymond, Barbara Nichols, William F. Leicester, Dan Seymour, Rusty Lane, Joyce Taylor, Carleton Young, Trudy Wroe, Joe Kirk, Charles Evans, Wendell Niles
Grim, shadowy, obscure melodrama of a writer who frames himself for murder on circumstantial evidence to expose the "system." The plot's twists and turns will hold your interest in this dark, moody drama. BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT was the last Hollywood movie directed by master filmmaker Lang.
From the Turner Classic Movies website (www.tcm.com), this article about the film by Lang Thompson: "The surprise-filled thriller Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) may have been director Fritz Lang's final American film but it's certainly not one of his lesser ones. Analytically inclined viewers can still find Lang's familiar themes of guilt and innocence but anybody else will delight in trying to out-guess the various twists in the engaging story. Critic Derek Malcolm wrote, 'It is a film of great economy and precision (it lasts only 80 minutes), with the terrifying inevitability of Greek tragedy and a pervading sense that man is his own worst enemy.'
"In fact, we don't want to give too much of the story away but we can let this much slip out: Novelist Dana Andrews is dating the daughter (Joan Fontaine) of a publisher (Sidney Blackmer) opposed to capital punishment. The publisher hatches a scheme where he and the novelist create enough circumstantial evidence in an unrelated case of a murdered dancer that Andrews appears to be responsible. They plan to spring Andrews at the last minute by revealing their deception and basking in a whirlwind of publicity about the unreliability of capital sentences and circumstantial evidence.
"Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was acclaimed by many, though certainly not all, critics. Jean-Luc Godard picked it as one of the year's ten best, snuggled right between Chaplin's A King in New York and Bunuel's The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz. However, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt didn't have a very smooth production. Director Lang felt forced into the film by producer Bert Friedlob and, tired of fighting, he restrained much of his legendary combativeness. It didn't help that Dana Andrews was drinking, resulting in missed deadlines until the studio assigned a man to monitor Andrews (which didn't work). Even the beginning and ending of the film resulted in fights between Lang and Friedlob. A portion of the opening execution scene was toned down by the producer (but apparently not as much as he would have liked). As for the unusual climax, Lang finally stood his ground (even though he told Peter Bogdanovich 'I was very afraid of the ending'). At least the script was by a one-time lawyer, Douglas Morrow, who had earlier won an Oscar for The Stratton Story (1949).
"But all these struggles capped Lang's growing dissatisfaction with Hollywood until he finally told Friedlob, 'I don't want to have anything to do with you anymore or the American motion picture industry.' After Lang's departure, editor Gene Fowler, Jr., a personal friend of the director, put the film together following Lang's instructions closely. (Fowler would later direct the B-movie classic, I Married a Monster from Outer Space, 1958) Lang directed three more films in Europe: a two-part remake of The Indian Tomb (1959) and the surveillance-mad 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960). He also had an unforgettable acting role in Godard's Contempt (1963) as a director trying to make a film version of The Odyssey."
From the DVD Savant website (www.dvdtalk.com), this 2010 review of the film by Glenn Erickson:
"... the deceptively small-scale Beyond a Reasonable Doubt pays off with a number of genuinely surprising narrative and thematic twists. Fritz Lang and his scenarist Douglas Morrow seem delighted with the idea of a principled man purposely misleading the justice system to prove a point. The movie is talky, as plenty of redundant dialogue is included to keep the story's all-important premise clear. The result isn't quite as shocking as it once was --- modern audiences expect every story assumption to be overturned --- but film scholars are still debating the film's ending.
"Wealthy publisher Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer of Rosemary's Baby) is so determined to make a public statement about the evils of capital punishment that he entreats his future son-in-law, successful writer Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) to cooperate with him on a risky scheme. Austin and Tom choose an unsolved murder of a showgirl from the tabloids and then rig evidence to 'frame' Tom for the crime. The idea is that, after Tom is arrested and convicted, Austin will come forward with proof of their trickery, forcing the courts to pardon Tom and admit that the system can be thwarted to convict an innocent man. Thus Austin will get publicity for his national anti-capital punishment campaign. The process necessitates Tom hanging around the strip club where the victim worked and dating one of her girlfriends, stripper Dolly Moore (Barbara Nichols). But the scheme must be kept a secret from Tom's fiancee Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine), who is so hurt by Tom's actions that she breaks off the engagement. Susan stands by her man when the trial commences.
"Everything works as planned until the jury goes into deliberations and Austin prepares to take the evidence proving Tom's innocence to the district attorney. Then Tom suddenly finds himself alone, with no proof that he isn't guilty as charged, and no Austin to back up his wild tale of a pact to defraud the courts for a good cause.
"Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is almost all talk and little action, yet its intriguing concept carries the day. The challenge for the actors is to make the unlikely events seem believable. We accept the fact that a 1956 audience needs each act of rigged evidence to be spelled out for them; the fun is trying to predict what the story twists will be. Chances are that newcomers to the movie will guess at least one or two of them. With that in mind, I'll skip further discussion of the film's major plot points. If you haven't yet had this movie spoiled, try to avoid reading too much about it before your first viewing.
"Even if you conclude that the film's mystery is now easy to guess, a second viewing will reveal patterns of behavior and unexplained actions that show how carefully Morrow and Lang have worked out their thesis. The disturbing element in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt emerges from the details --- if what we 'know' as fact and fiction emerges from such tiny clues that can either be forgotten or exaggerated, then the moral implications of everything that gets reported in the newspapers isn't as simple as we think it is. Are right and wrong, & guilt and innocence determined by arbitrary factors? Lang questions whether or not individual guilt is really an abstract concept.
"Finally, the film asks us to question the nature of loyalty in a relationship. At the finish, does Susan Spencer act out of a higher morality, or is she getting personal revenge for petty reasons? Who has betrayed whom?
" ... Beyond a Reasonable Doubt got a mixed critical reception. More than one upscale critic were quick to find detail flaws and legal inconsistencies, as if they were incensed that they might have been fooled by some of Doubt's faster narrative turns. Audiences probably would have preferred more in the way of action, as a bit of dancing on the burlesque stage is the only break from the (admittedly good) dialogue scenes. The movie was appreciated much more a few years later, when auteur-minded critics reexamining Lang's career fell over themselves to praise the director's questioning of the loose ends of the justice system."