Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)
Fritz Lang is a director whose work, even at its silliest, can entertain, and that’s how one must approach Beyond a Reasonable Doubt – now available in a beautiful Blu-ray from Warner Archive. The film, Lang’s last American release before he returned to his native Germany, is layered like a cake with plot contrivances and coincidences that boggle the mind in their insanity. If you like your crime dramas wacky and as high concept as they can get, this is for you!
Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) is a successful book author looking for his next great idea. He and a colleague decide to set up Tom as the prime suspect in a murder in the hopes that he, an innocent man, will be convicted and face the death penalty. Why? So they can prove the death penalty is unnecessary. But as Tom becomes more mired in the murder, the fear is that he won’t be able to get himself out.
Where to start with a movie that feels as if the entire story is written on the fly. I actually enjoyed the hokey qualities of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. I mean, the Law and Order crew would have probably gotten him acquitted right away, but you need something to maintain narrative thrust. Dana Andrews has cultivated an everyman persona and his Tom Garrett is pretty unassuming. He conveys the character’s nice qualities; he’s a man who isn’t meant to be memorable, which aids in others fingering him for the murder of burlesque queen, Polly Gray. Garrett is trying to find inspiration for his second book and he’s quasi-gaslit by friend Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer) to involve himself in Polly’s murder as a means of proving the death penalty is bogus. Now, everyone has their opinions on the death penalty, but there’s never any real belief that the conviction (and eventual pardon) of Garrett will be enough to abolish the entire system. I have a hard time believing anyone would buy that in 1956, let alone 2018!
Much of the runtime is standard courtroom procedural and it’s hard to avoid looking at this as an inferior launchpad for Billy Wilder’s far superior Witness for the Prosecution (1957), even the endings are similar. We watch Tom ingratiate himself into the life of another showgirl, but at a scant 80 minutes the entire thing feels like a rush job. Before you know it Tom’s convicted with twenty minutes to absolve him. Blackmer’s Austin Spencer is the mastermind behind all this and it would stand to reason he’d be involved in some capacity. The only true “gotcha” moment of the film is in witnessing how the script devises stakes that would see Tom executed. The third act is really the only place Joan Fontaine gets to shine in an utterly wasted role as Susan Spencer. Susan is Garrett’s best gal and while the third act gives her a brief opportunity to run a newspaper her character only exists to support Andrews’ Garrett. There’s hardly a reason why an actress of her caliber should have starred in a role any day player could have pulled off.
Of course the script has to find a way to sell the entire premise and I won’t spoil things, but it will either shock you or make you slap your head in frustration. For a character to be defined as a murderer in this there has to be some allusions to it that we aren’t seeing. When the murderer is finally revealed it plays like the screenwriter backed himself into a corner and chewed his leg off to escape. It’s a weird way to end things, is what I’m saying.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is definitely beyond reasonable. The soap opera melodrama/courtroom theatrics are fun to watch and Dana Andrews is always a great presence for any film. I demand there be more for Joan Fontaine to do!
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
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