Fritz Lang’s last American motion picture is the 1956 film noir Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Written by Douglas Morrow, this film has a shoestring budget but nevertheless boasts big names like Dana Andrews and Joan Fontaine. It touches on the familiar Lang theme of an innocent man thrust into a society that is well beyond his control, plus it’s got plenty of delicious cynicism.
Lang was not exactly running on all cylinders at the time of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and for good reason. He was tired of the Hollywood studio system getting in the way of his artistic endeavours and felt that producer Bert L. Friedlob was an exhausting character to work with. Some reports suggest Andrews was forced on Lang and that his alcoholism was a problem behind the scenes.
Andrews stars as Tom Garrett, a writer working on his second book. He’s out to lunch with the newspaper publisher Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer) when the topic of capital punishment comes up. Spencer is against it, arguably that too many innocent men could potentially be put to death by the state. He suggests the staging of a hoax to prove his point.
Garrett, who is engaged to be married to Spencer’s daughter (Fontaine), plants clues that will lead to his arrest for the murder of a nightclub dancer named Patty. The actual crime was presumably committed by someone else, but Spencer aims to prove that circumstantial evidence can lead to the capturing of the wrong man. Naturally, Garrett and Spencer’s little scheme doesn’t go according to plan.
This isn’t Lang’s best work and it’s kind of an uninspired picture from a visual sense, especially considering the opportunities presented by the unique plot. Cinematographer William Snyder plays things relatively straight, but there’s not a lot to work with given the abundance of straightforward lighting and conventional set designs. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt has a certain TV show quality.
Andrews is a long way off from his more convincing noir role-playing. There isn’t a lot of dimension to his part, which has him playing a straight man to Spencer’s odd ideas. Blackmer fares only slightly better, but the screenplay resists giving him a personality or any twists of the moral nature. And Fontaine all but sleepwalks through the film, rendering her relationship with Andrews’ Garrett a real dud.
Lang’s mastery of the genre is evident but concealed by the half-hearted production. His cynicism ripples through the frames, ensuring that humanity is never entirely redeemed. His dark outlook is found in the scenes in Club Zombie, where doomed strippers cling to the certain violence of their lives. The best scenes involve the women, with Barbara Nichols providing some gloomy comic relief as Dolly.
Nichols’ character, along with Robin Raymond’s Terry, makes an early impression at the police station. They are questioned about the details of Patty’s death and aren’t the least bit rattled. Dolly is more interested in whether or not the cop shop has donuts, while Terry is disinclined to give away too many details. She could be next, after all, and the flatfoots aren’t to be trusted.
It’s too bad Beyond a Reasonable Doubt didn’t do more with Lang’s inborn cynicism, but the movie is content to veer off into a twist ending that proves satisfying but pointlessly artificial. There were other more direct ways to achieve the requisite deduction and Andrews never quite reaches the emotional heights or psychological depths required to give his character the appropriate dimension.
A second-rate noir, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is hard to recommend when there are so many better examples of the genre out there. There are also many better outings for Lang, particularly when it comes to dealing with this subject matter. Still, this isn’t a terrible movie and the twist does have value as entertainment. And Barbara Nichols ain’t too bad to look at, either.