Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was Fritz Lang’s last American film, and it’s one of his most underrated productions. Despite its flaws it’s a complex and interesting film.
According to Lette Eisner (in her book on Lang) by this time Lang was thoroughly bored by the idea of social problem films. That’s an important point to bear in mind since it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that this movie is a critique of capital punishment. While Lang may well have been against capital punishment that’s not what this movie is about except at a very superficial level. A straightforward anti-capital punishment story would have been too obvious and boring a theme to have interested Lang. There’s little doubt that he accepted this project when it was offered to him because he could see that it had much wider possibilities.
Crusading newspaper proprietor Austin Spencer persuades his friend Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) to witness an execution. Spencer has been campaigning against capital punishment, and against the very successful District Attorney Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf). Garrett had worked for Spencer as a newspaperman and is now a novelist, and engage to Spencer’s daughter Susan (Joan Fontaine)
Spencer has an ingenious plan. If he can get an innocent man arrested and then convicted of a murder and then reveal that it was all a set-up and that the man in entirely innocent then he can not only discredit the concept of capital punishment, he can also wreck Thompson’s chances of becoming governor. Garrett is intrigued by this scheme and agrees to be the innocent man in the phony murder frame-up.
The plan involves planting a trail of false clues, clues that will amount to sufficient circumstantial evidence to ensure Garrett’s conviction. Spencer explains that there’s no actual risk. They will keep records of their activities and more importantly Spencer will take photographs of Garrett planting the false clues, photographs that will include newspaper headlines that will establish unequivocally that they placed the phony clues several days after the murder. Once they present this record to the authorities Garrett can count on an immediate pardon.
All they need now is a suitable murder, one that seems to be baffling the police. And the ideal murder occurs soon afterwards - the slaying of a burlesque dancer. The bogus clues have the desired effect and Tom Garrett is soon behind bars, and is convicted precisely according to the plan. Everything is going very smoothly indeed. And then fate steps in, and suddenly Tom Garrett is sitting on Death Row with apparently very little chance of getting that pardon. There are further dramatic twists but I’m not going to give away any spoilers.
This is a movie about innocence and guilt, truth and lies, appearances and reality. Spencer and Garrett weave a clever but dangerous web of deceit. As does the film itself. If you’re a film-maker making a mystery film you have to lie to the audience, you have to practice the same kinds of deception that Spencer and Garrett use to carry off their scheme. The film-maker has to plant red herrings and present clues in a misleading way in order to maintain suspense. It’s ideal material for Fritz Lang.
There’s moral ambiguity and complexity in abundance. Austin Spencer initially is presented as the noble crusading newspaper owner but his actions are horrifyingly irresponsible and cynical. He risks having his friend sent to the electric chair for a crime he did not commit, he puts his daughter through an appalling ordeal and risks destroying her prospective marriage, he wastes a great deal of police time, he wastes a considerable amount of taxpayers’ money on a totally unnecessary trial and he disrupts an important police investigation in a manner that could easily have led to the real killer (a vicious violent killer) escaping justice and being free to commit further murders. He does all this for the sake of scoring political points and indulging his taste for self-righteous soapbox posturing.
His motives for doing all this are more than questionable. Underneath his annoyingly sanctimonious exterior he clearly enjoys the power that owning a newspaper brings, and he is fairly obviously at least partly motivated by his personal animosity to the DA. It’s difficult not to believe that his enthusiasm for the cause he espouses has quite a bit to do with not wanting the DA to succeed in using his courtroom triumphs as a springboard into the governor’s office.
The DA is seemingly set up as the villain of the piece, an ambitious and ruthless man, a man we are led to believe has few scruples. Ironically he turns out to be the most honest (or perhaps the least dishonest is a better way of putting it) of the major characters.
One aspect of this film that is surprisingly often overlooked is the way the press is portrayed. We have here a cynical manipulative newspaper proprietor who wields his power ruthlessly and irresponsibly. The moral depravity of Austin Spencer is truly extraordinary. He clearly believes himself to be a higher level of government than the actual government. Later in the movie we will see his daughter using the power of the press in an attempt to force the criminal justice system to dance to her tune.
By 1956 television was presenting a major threat to Hollywood and this had a particularly serious effect on the cheaper sort of crime film, the B-pictures and the lower-budgeted A-pictures, in fact pictures like this one. Lang didn’t have the budget to include the kinds of visual flourishes you expect in a Lang film and at times it’s a little flat. The casting is also perhaps not quite ideal, apart from Dana Andrews. Tom Garratt is a challenging role for an actor, a man who is practising deception on several levels simultaneously. Dana Andrews is reasonably effective. A more flamboyant actor might have been too obvious.
Douglas Morrow’s screenplay stretches credibility at times but given that it’s an inherently fantastic and implausible concept that’s probably unavoidable. You just have to accept the slightly contrived nature of the script. Given the themes the movie is dealing with a slightly contrived and artificial feel is perhaps more of an asset than a liability.
These are minor quibbles. Overall it’s an intriguing film and much more successful than its indifferent reputation would suggest.