Beyond a Reasonable Doubt Review
The last Hollywood picture from the industry's most consistently great director, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is a tightly wound and crackling film noir armed with a brilliant plot device. Fritz Lang's 1956 movie finds writer Dana Andrews teaming up with his future father-in-law (Sidney Blackmer), a newspaperman adamantly against capital punishment, to intentionally frame Andrews for a murder. They plant clues and do enough legwork to get Andrews charged with the high-profile crime but are careful to take photographs that should vindicate him in the event of a conviction. The idea is to show the fallibility of the death penalty and of how circumstantial evidence can, with enough coincidences, put an innocent in line for execution. Left out of their plan is Joan Fontaine as Andrews' fiancee. She's cruelly kept in the dark about the entire thing.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt has a very pulpy feel to its central conceit. Time and again, things occur that seem to bend the plausibility of what we're seeing. There's the quizzical main intention of Andrews' character, with the excuse being that he's doing it as research for a novel and thus in the name of art, but also tough to figure are Fontaine's relatively calm demeanor and the almost sadistic insanity of a father putting his daughter and future son-in-law through such an ordeal. Perhaps it's Lang's misanthropy at work. Regardless, the apparent neatness of it all proves to be an interesting layer. Shades of the director's The Woman in the Window can be seen to some extent. That film, like this one, has an odd detachment from reality in terms of the situations and actions of the characters. Motivations do not, on the surface, always make sense.
Given his penchant for exploring criminal justice in both the formal and informal sense, Lang must have been right at home with this material. It tackles one of his cinematic obsessions - guilt - head on and somewhat more devilishly than he'd had the chance to previously. The ever cynical director seemed to grow increasingly crusty in his older age. The sympathy and call to action seen earlier in films like You Only Live Once and Fury were replaced by a more defeatist sentiment here and in the just-previous While the City Sleeps. Lang's attitude, if not necessarily his ideology, somehow became even more paranoid and pessimistic during his time working in Hollywood. The rational observer might note how Lang's choices must have also shrank as the fifties wore on, but that hardly changes the cumulative effect of now watching his studio films and recognizing the many similarities sprinkled among them. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt strips some of these ideas to their marrow, incorporating an entire scenario of legal and moral concern in which the question of guilt is forced to take on various meanings. Even the film's title, a reference to the burden of proof required to render a guilty verdict in criminal cases, highlights how narrow the criteria needed for punishment ostensibly must be.
To some extent, Lang here is presenting a filmic test case in much the same way his protagonist is voluntarily serving as an example to, in theory, highlight the flaws of the legal system. The director is asking his audience to go along with a highly unusual scenario and to do so with a sympathy that will later become unavoidably confused and conflicted. There are two great chances for the film to pull the rug out beneath the audience, and Lang makes the best of both. When Blackmer's character bites the dust in a car accident, with those exculpating photos in tow, it's a delicious shock and a testament to Lang's powers of manipulation. At this point, a first-time viewer has almost no indication that Andrews truly is guilty (the other big twist) so it's a real moment to gasp. How will our "innocent" hero avoid execution? The eventual revelation that he's the murderer largely comes out of nowhere (though, armed with such knowledge, it is possible to see very minor hints earlier). This is due in part by having an actor in Andrews with a stalwart, good guy persona. It's generally assumed he's innocent, and any thoughts otherwise don't really occur during the film. Similarly, the blonde floozy played so well by Barbara Nichols is easily dismissed as expendable and just a pawn in Andrews' plan.
Part of the appeal in seeing Lang's name attached to a film is knowing that he never faded or became content to rely on past successes. With the possible exception of American Guerrilla in the Philippines, there are no bad Fritz Lang movies. One theme he began during his silent picture days in Germany and returned to in earnest with his final film, Die 1000 Augen des Mabuse, was voyeurism, aided by eavesdropping devices. Here Lang inserts television cameras into the courtroom during Andrews' trial. Clearly, a point is being made or the deliberate, obvious inclusion of those bulky cameras would not have happened. Is Lang perhaps predicting the tabloid culture that's now exploded far beyond even his wildest fears? It's certainly a reinforcement of the idea that people have an odd inclination to use others' crimes as their own entertainment, a fact Lang must have been rather thankful for over the course of his career.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt joins last year's release of While the City Sleeps in the Fritz Lang section of Exposure Cinema's stable. The small UK-based label is fighting the good fight with its R2 pressed discs priced very reasonably, cheaper even than opting for the bare made-on-demand versions available through the Warner Archive Collection. Next up for Exposure should be a third Lang film, Secret Beyond the Door, which is promised to be fully restored.
The image quality on Beyond a Reasonable Doubt looks rather rough to my eyes, definitely inferior to While the City Sleeps. A good deal of damage in the form of occasional speckles and scratches persists, and some chroma is visible. Contrast is modest, which might be a good word to sum up the video presentation on the whole. Still, the watchability factor of this transfer is high, with available detail being a strength, and I wouldn't for a second hesitate to purchase the release or regret doing so after a viewing. The film is, as ever, the thing and an imperfect presentation seems preferable to nothing at all (or a purple-bellied DVD-R costing upwards of $20 from a major corporation that would rather stick to reissuing a few handfuls of canonical classics than put out anything previously unavailable on proper pressed discs).
Due to economic and practical concerns, Exposure used an existing master from the BBC for its transfer. This was deemed the best of four possible options the label had, including a 16mm print in the BFI archive, an older television master that was the source for a Spanish DVD released by Warner Bros., and the widescreen master used for the Warner Archive edition in the U.S. Exposure is pretty adamant that both of its Lang releases belong in Academy aspect ratio rather than Scope. There's no question, as I understand it, that the films were originally shown theatrically in widescreen, only that Lang intended and framed them for 1.33:1/1.37:1. I've not seen anything to convince me otherwise of this assertion, and watching the films in Academy does support at least the viability of that framing being correct or preferable.
Two-channel English mono audio shows its weaknesses through persistent crackling sounds and small pops. Even with such limitations, the dialogue can be heard minus any struggle. It's akin to watching and listening to an older, scratchy television print, which is pretty much what we have here. English subtitles are offered for the hearing impaired. Nice to see those on a classic title again. They are a pale yellow color.
Special features on this release are modest but at least do show some amount of care. The film's theatrical trailer has been included. There's also a Still Gallery on the disc with advertising and publicity photos. Inside the case is a single-page reversible insert, with French poster art on one side and the American poster art on the other. Again, the extras don't add up to a lot but it's all better than nothing (which is generally what you'd get from the made-on-demand releases or even catalog titles issued by Odeon and Optimum).