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Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)
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by Jay Seaver

"If I were Fritz Lang, I might leave the country after this, too."
2 stars

"Beyond a Reasonable Doubt" was Fritz Lang's last American movie, and while I doubt that it, individually, was what soured him on Hollywood enough to send him back to Europe, it's not the triumphant note a master should leave on, but a ludicrous thing that trades away its chance to make a point for an absurd plot.

The film opens with a man being brought to the electric chair, a sight that makes quite the impression on writer Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews). He was sent to witness the event by his former employer, newspaper editor Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), who has been using his editorial page to crusade against the death penalty, especially when applied on the basis of circumstantial evidence. He hatches a plan, which could form the basis of Garrett's next book: Frame Garrett for an unsolved murder, and then, after sentencing, reveal how they did it. It's the big city, so one naturally turns up - a burlesque dancer found strangled at the side of the road - and they put their plan in motion. Of course, they keep Tom's fiancée - and Austin's daughter - Susan (Joan Fontaine) in the dark about it so that her reactions will be genuine. How could such a plan fail?

Well, obviously, in any number of ways, since it's idiotic. Even ignoring some of the dated elements of the script, such as how Austin thinks the courts should rely more on eyewitness testimony (which has since been found to be far less reliable than the circumstantial evidence railed against), it is only able to succeed because apparently this city's police force doesn't secure its crime scenes at all and doesn't do any real detective work until the apparent perpetrator has made the absurd claim that he framed himself after his case has been sent to the jury. It's a stupid premise with plot holes that one could drive a truck through - and that's before taking into consideration just how convenient it is that the cop investigating the case is Susan's ex-boyfriend.

Then the movie gets to its last-act twists, which undermine everything that has gone before so systematically that it must be writer Doughlas Morrow's plan. If so, it's a plan without a worthy goal. The first twist is merely obvious and dependent on some easily-preventable terrible planning (if I'm Garrett, I certainly want a hell of a lot more redundancy built into the "present evidence that I'm not really guilty" part of the caper than there turns out to be), but it's sort of necessary. Lang and Morrow keep piling switch-ups on, though, until the movie is no longer about anything - what had started out as taking a stand against capital punishment drifts toward becoming a tale of hubris, and even that ultimately devolves into a fairly standard murder mystery. By the time the end arrives, it's hard for the audience to feel anything; the passion and the thrills have given way to explanations.

The cast is somewhat muted to modern ears - everybody has crisp diction and says exactly what they mean to get across, smothering personality just a bit. Dana Andrews, in particular, has something of a weird performance - Tom Garrett is a bit of a cipher; his best moments are actually when he plays at slumming to plant the idea of himself as a suspect in the heads of the victim's co-workers. Fontaine is charming enough as Susan - elegant, perhaps a bit class-conscious but not enough for the audience to hold it against her. She hits all the right beats but isn't given enough to see what makes Susan click with Tom. Or Arthur Franz's Detective Hale, for that matter. Nothing wrong with his performance, but no spark. It's also a bit of a shame that Sidney Blackmer and Philip Bourneuf don't get more scenes together - they sell the newspaper publisher and district attorney as friendly enemies immediately, each giving their characters the right balance of intelligence and imperfection.

Lang stitches things together ably enough, although his best moment comes early, in the execution scene that shows about as much as one might expect from a 1956 studio picture but is shot and edited so well that it makes a far stronger impression. He and his crew put the film together meticulously, there's an early cut that seems much more clever toward the end, and director of photography William Snyder makes good use of his widescreen black & white canvas.

In many ways, this film is hoisted by its own petard - clear storytelling, in this case, lays a bad script's faults bare. A filmmaker whose nature is to distract might have made "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt" busy enough to keep the audience from thinking about it too much until the movie was over, but that's not Lang, and so the film is an obvious mess from the start.

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originally posted: 06/24/11 11:35:20
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  DVD: 16-May-2011



Directed by
  Fritz Lang

Written by
  Douglas Morrow

  Dana Andrews
  Joan Fontaine
  Sidney Blackmer
  Barbara Nichols

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