BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (Fritz Lang, 1956)

Those who denigrate Fritz Lang’s last American film, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, usually describe its story as being overly contrived and “full of holes”—two attributes that a logical person might deem mutually exclusive. Some fault its legal naïvité despite the fact that the script from which Lang worked was written by Douglas Morrow, who graduated with a law degree from N.Y.U. Despite a pipe-smoking red herring, this is a fine little film that, beguilingly slippery, turns against itself repeatedly, all the way through to inside-out, confounding a series of audience expectations in order to relegate a number of things to an inconclusive zone populated by murky results: a capital murder trial prosecuted by a politically ambitious district attorney; the crime involved as manipulated by a wealthy newspaper publisher intent on embarrassing the legal system to advance his cause against capital punishment; the crime involved as manipulated by a man from a working-class background who (at the very least) is pursuing material for his second novel; the conflicted feelings of a woman—the publisher’s daughter; to begin with, the novelist’s fiancée—whose reflex of loyalty battles a repressed desire to dismiss or betray whoever might get cozy with her, which is her way of guarding against being manipulated, used. As Susan Spencer, this woman, Joan Fontaine is exquisitely convoluted—a raging neurotic beneath a poised surface. Although she has no accomplishments, Susan is the image of accomplishment. Tom Garrett has at least written a well-received novel.
     Lang’s film, which revolves around Tom’s attempt, at Austin Spencer’s prompting, to feign being the murderer of a burlesque performer, has people doing daring, stupid things. Like Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel (1945), also starring Dana Andrews, Lang’s Beyond is rife with class collision. Think An American Tragedy.

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