RKO Radio Pictures, 80m 25s
Should anyone be sentenced to death based upon circumstantial evidence? That is the major question posed in BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, a noir-stricken social problem drama that was released in the twilight of the film noir's heyday. Director Fritz Lang's prior films include some of the most revered instances of genre filmmaking (M , SCARLET STREET , THE BIG HEAT ), so his final American production caught me off guard with somewhat stagy direction, an overly deliberate pace and seemingly textbook plot mechanics. Little did I realize I was being set up in the best possible way by Lang and screenwriter Douglas Morrow.
The narrative commences on a somber note with the condemnation of a man to the electric chair. Among the spectators at the event are Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), an idealistic newspaper man, and his future son-in-law Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews), a former journalist with a hit novel under his belt. After the execution, Austin explains to Tom the conviction that resulted in a death sentence was based exclusively on circumstantial evidence. While Austin declares his firm stance against capital punishment, enter District Attorney Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf), who holds the opposite view on the subject. Roy's career is on the rise thanks to his reputation for squeezing guilty verdicts out of juries. He is the type of chief prosecutor who is supremely skilled at making small details seem crucial, and that talent might make him a governor someday.
After Tom realizes slow progress on his second novel has gotten him into disfavor with his publisher, Tom is talked into a potential solution that would serve a dual purpose. Tom is to play the part of innocent man convicted on circumstantial evidence, with Austin prepared to swoop down at the final hour to exonerate Tom with unquestionable evidence the author is an innocent man. Thereby Austin proves the validity of his long-held argument against capital punishment, and Tom avoids the sophomore slump with all the ingredients for a potent follow-up to his original novel. When police discover the murdered body of a burlesque dancer ("pretty Patty Gray" according to the exploitative news article), it seems everything is in place for Tom and Austin to draw from their secret playbook. The beauty of BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT is the manner in which Fritz Lang engineers dramatic simplicity while he builds a fairly complex narrative engine. Like a practiced attorney, Lang encourages the viewer to form conclusions, but then he forces us to challenge them. When Tom indicates he would rather be in the bedroom working on Susan than book research, Austin looks in disgust at the couple. Why? Later Austin casually smokes a pipe and leaves a paper trail. Is it just part of the setup of Tom, or does it imply something else?
In addition to the social commentary announced in its title, BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT fires a warning shot against self-centered behavior. The three major male characters act almost entirely out of self interest. Roy wants to further his career on the electrocuted bodies of convicted criminals, Austin wishes to prove the limitations of circumstantial evidence and the concept of reasonable doubt, Tom wants to get his next writing project completed so he can get married. Furthermore, both Austin and Tom pay dearly for deceptive behavior when critical evidence is torched by the noir motif of fate. By setting himself up to be convicted for murder, Tom is a fascinating noir protagonist in that he willfully volunteers for the punishment we suspect awaits him. He essentially sentences himself to death by electrocution in the hope he will be spared before the switch of death is pulled. The ideally-named Club Zombie is more than just a crummy noir venue populated by tough-talking dames; its branding claims Tom as among noir's walking dead men. People sometimes are not what they portray, and the noir doppelgänger theme gets a real workout here, with Tom assuming multiple identities and the murdered burlesque dancer known by two different names.
Without the film noir foundation outlined above, there may have been too many implausibilities to take BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT seriously. Could a man risk going to the chair over a novel, which may or may not be a success? Would that man not have too many worries that something could go wrong? And how could he be so insensitive as to not let his fiancée Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine) in on the master plan? In light of the film noir's cynical view of human nature, it is easy to look beyond those questions and ask better ones. How do some people manage to convince themselves they can control not only their own lives, but the lives of others? How arrogant does a person have to be to behave that way? The world is far too complex for anybody to exhibit much control over anything. Nonetheless, sometimes we attempt to reduce that complexity to simple cause and effect, yet there always will be variables we either cannot control or, more likely, never consider. The resolution of the narrative does little to resolve the moral conundrum introduced in the opening act. Instead one is left with the idea that human instincts are far too egocentric to solve a puzzle as complex as capital punishment.
Classic female archetypes are ingrained so deeply in the noir film often there is little to consider beyond wives and whores. Susan is the type of girl a man wishes to marry, the gals at the Club Zombie serve as her polar opposites. Distinctions are drawn clearly in terms of environments, attire, intelligence and each woman's command of the English language. The lower-tier woman is characterized by base instincts, as when "dazzling" but irritatingly loudmouthed blonde Dolly Moore (Barbara Nichols) is impressed by a large roll of cash Tom flashes. Her dancing colleague Terry Larue (Robin Raymond) does separate herself somewhat on an intelligence level when she rightly becomes suspicious of Tom. Terry gets the best line of the film when she asks Dolly, "...what's he shopping around in the basement for?" Terry does not have any illusions that they are anything other than what they really are: dime-store showgirls. That sense of streetwise awareness makes her more likely to survive tough noir terrain than her pleasant but bubble-brained coworker Joan Williams (Joyce Taylor).
The single-layered Blu-ray version of BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT available via Warner Archive is framed at 2.0:1 (RKO-Scope). It must have been derived from fairly well-preserved source material, though frames appear to drop out at times. This transfer may not be perfect, but it is likely the best interpretation we are going to get of the rather straightforward but effective cinematography of William E. Snyder. I wish the score by Herschel Burke Gilbert did not coach the viewer on how to react. The only extra on this disc is a spoiler-laced trailer (2m 43s). As of this writing, I have not had an opportunity to view THE MAN WHO DARED (1946), a film that by all accounts tells a strikingly similar tale.
BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT was repurposed for 2009, with director Peter Hyams at the helm. This remake for the most part was skewered by critics, most of whom seemed more determined to establish they were smarter than the material than offer any insightful criticism. Though I agree the remake’s conclusion feels overly telegraphed, the storyline is decidedly more pessimistic than the 1956 original. Film noir fans should appreciate how the 2009 version depicts modern-day legal corruption and dishonest journalism. In some respects, the remake is even more noir than the source of its inspiration.