Beyond A Reasonable Doubt

cast: Dana Andrews, Joan Fontaine, Sidney Blackmer, Robin Raymond, and Barbara Nicholls

director: Fritz Lang

80 minutes (PG) 1956
widescreen ratio 2:1
Exposure DVD Region 2

RATING: 5/10
review by Ian Sales

See also:
Beyond A Reasonable Doubt
(2009) remake
Beyond A Reasonable Doubt

I’ve never really understood why Dana Andrews was cast as the lead in so many films. He was not especially handsome, and his face seemed incapable of registering emotion. And yet, between 1940 and 1985, he appeared in some 76 films. Though he was never nominated for an Oscar, he did appear in a number of highly-regarded films and his performances in them were praised. Perhaps I have yet to see one of those films. Because Beyond A Reasonable Doubt isn’t one of them. It was Fritz Lang’s last film in the US, which perhaps has contributed to its reputation more than its actual quality has done. This is by no means a bad film, but neither is it anything special.

Andrews plays a journalist turned novelist, Tom Garrett, who is set to marry the daughter, Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine), of his ex-boss, newspaper tycoon Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer). After witnessing an execution at the city’s prison, Spencer explains his misgivings regarding the death penalty to Garrett. He disagrees with capital punishment and is especially troubled that a person could be given a death sentence on the basis of circumstantial evidence. In order to demonstrate the danger of an innocent person being executed, the two hatch a plot. They will choose a murder case that has the police baffled, and then plant circumstantial evidence pointing to Garrett as the perpetrator. This will all be documented, but won’t be revealed until after Garrett has been tried and sentenced to death.

And so it goes. A nightclub dancer is found strangled in the city’s outskirts, and Garrett and Spencer set about incriminating Garrett for the crime. This involves getting to know the dancer’s two friends, Dolly Moore (Barbara Nicholls), and Terry Larue (Robin Raymond). Getting to know then a bit too well, in fact, as Garrett’s ‘dalliance’ causes his fiancée Susan to break off their engagement. With each piece of planted evidence, Spencer and Garrett are careful to take photographs to show that the whole thing has been faked. The police eventually fasten their attention on Garrett, arrest him, and he is charged. The circumstantial evidence is sufficient to have him found guilty, and he is duly sentenced to be executed.

At which point Austin Spencer dies in a car crash. Now, Garrett is stuck on death row, with no way of proving his innocence. Though he comes clean on the ‘trick’ he and Spencer played, it’s seen as a last-ditch desperate defence – the exonerating photographs were burnt beyond recognition in the car crash. Susan, who now realises she was wrong to abandon Garrett, urges ex-beau and assistant district attorney Bob Hale (Arthur Franz) to investigate further and prove Garrett’s innocence… And so he does. Or does he?

There’s a twist to the ending of Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, but it’s not an especially hard one to guess. The reveal, however, is reasonably cleverly done. Up to that point, the film has been little more than a somewhat entertaining thriller. Andrews, as previously mentioned, I find a little too blank to be a convincing lead – he may do the stoicism well once he is on death row and waiting for a reprieve, but prior to that he comes across as a louche automaton. Fontaine is little better, and her few minutes on screen don’t really justify her star billing. The two dancers – Raymond and Nicholls – may play stereotypes but they appear to have more fun with their roles than the rest of the cast.

And it is a very po-faced and serious film. Certainly the subject is not trivial, but there’s an earnestness to much of the acting which only underscores the inevitability of the story. Lang’s direction is slight, with few of his trademark shots or production design – While The City Sleeps, the film he made immediately prior to this one, is a more obviously Lang movie than Beyond A Reasonable Doubt. For that reason alone, this feels like a disappointment. It’s entertaining and expertly-paced, but it never feels like it amounts to much. The setting is too generic, the cast are too ordinary, and the final twist is too easy to guess.