Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1957)

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1957) ** ½
Directed by: Fritz Lang.
Written by: Douglas Morrow.
Starring: Dana Andrews (Tom Garrett), Joan Fontaine (Susan Spencer), Sidney Blackmer (Austin Spencer), Arthur Franz (Bob Hale), Philip Bourneuf (Roy Thompson), Edward Binns (Lt. Kennedy), Shepperd Strudwick (Jonathan Wilson), Robin Raymond (Terry Larue), Barbara Nichols (Dolly Moore), William F. Leicester (Charlie Miller), Dan Seymour (Greco), Rusty Lane (Judge), Joyce Taylor (Joan Williams), Carleton Young (Allan Kirk).

Fritz Lang was one of the best filmmakers in history. His films Metropolis (1927) and M (1931) are landmarks, and some of his other films for his years in Germany are also great films (I am thinking specifically of Spies (1929) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) – although I have not seen all of his films from that era). In 1933, he fled Nazi Germany and ended up in America, where he continued his career – and while at the time his American films were often looked down upon by critics as not being as good as his earlier work (a pretty much impossible standard to live up), they have been reevaluated over the years, and some have become regarded as masterpieces themselves – notably his seminal film noir The Big Heat (1953). Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1957) was his last American film. Frustrated by his inability to find receptive producers and studios, he went back to Germany after this film, and made three more films. For reasons I do not understand, some feel that Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is one of his great American films – for me though, it feels more like Lang going through the motions. Yes, he was a great filmmaker, but in this case, he has not made a great film.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is a movie that is full of plot holes and what seems like a complete and total lack of understanding about the criminal justice system. I suppose a movie like this could work – you could probably named dozens that do – but for me this one simply strains credibility too far.

The story is about Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) an author struggling with the follow-up novel to his successful debut. He is engaged to Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine), the daughter of newspaper magnate Austin (Sidney Blackmer), who is enraged with the death penalty. He is tired of seeing people railroader into the death penalty on little more than circumstantial evidence, but no one will listen. But he has an idea – if he can prove that an innocent man has been sentenced to death, perhaps people will listen, and the law will be overturned. He approaches his future son-in-law with an idea – they find a murder that the police cannot solve, and then frame Garrett for it, planting circumstantial evidence all around him. They will document everything, so once Garrett is found guilty, they can reveal their hoax, and put pressure on the supporters of the death penalty. There is so much wrong with this idea from a legal standpoint, I’m not even going to bother to talk it – it doesn’t really matter, it’s just a story device anyway. Of course, things go horribly wrong, and Garrett finds himself convicted of the murder, but no longer has anyway to prove himself innocent.

This is a deeply cynical film. It paints anti-death penalty advocates as dangerously, perhaps even criminally naïve. Yet it doesn’t really hold out much sympathy for the pro-death penalty faction either. Everyone in this movie is in some kind of moral quicksand – and that’s the way Lang likes it. Only Joan Fontaine is completely innocent here – and she’s barely given a credible part to play. Dana Andrews was a decent actor in his time – square jawed and seemingly upright and moral, he didn’t have much range, but he could play the parts he was given well at times. I do think that as Garrett he is miscast – this part requires an actor with more complexity and darkness inside him than Andrews could convincingly play. It just doesn’t work.

For much of its running time, I thought Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was a decent enough movie – Lang provides an interesting visual look and feel to the movie, and I did like the moral quicksand that everyone in the film is sinking in. And I must say that the twist ending of the film truly did surprise me – but not in a good way. It really is the ending, which was completely ridiculous, that did the movie in for me. Again, I could talk about the legal ramifications of the final reveal, but that doesn’t matter does it? Pure and simple, the ending of the movie is a joke. I can see why Lang left America after this film.

Note: This film was remade with Michael Douglas in 2010. I haven’t seen that film, and after watching this one, I doubt I ever will. If Lang couldn’t make this material work, I doubt any other director could.

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