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Noir Do Wells 1: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)

Posted by Charles Reece, April 18, 2009 09:56pm | Post a Comment

The most wonderful thing about life seems to be that we hardly tap our potential for self-destruction.
-- John Cheever

Over the past few weeks, I've been attending some of the features being shown at the American Cinematheque's 11th Annual Film Noir Festival. My next few blog entries will be about what I saw. First up, two films by two of my favorite directors that center on the basic stupidity of their protagonists to get all the pieces to fit into their respective jury-rigged plots.

Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt


Independent journalist Tom Garrett (a well-lubricated Dana Andrews) goes along with a harebrained scheme to prove the injustice of the death penalty as devised by his future father-in-law, the liberal newspaper editor Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer). More gonzo than Hunter S. Thompson, Tom will plant enough evidence to get himself convicted for an unsolved, brutal murder. Since women are prone to hysteria, the two men decide it best not to tell Tom's fiance, Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine, the missing link between Grace Kelly and Madame). It's not difficult to see where this one's going: on the way to the courthouse when the jury is to hand in its verdict, Austin gets into a fatal car crash, with all the exculpatory photographic evidence burning up (cars were real fire hazards in those days).

For the most part, Lang's Hollywood style is closer to Howard Hawks than his German period, so I'm not sure what's so "noirish" about this film (all the images being logical, but still just functional). If anything, Reasonable Doubt is, as the title suggests, a courtroom drama. HIs only true noirs from the 50s that come to mind are The Big Heat and Clash By Night. Lang's films from this period are typically noted for their cynicism (like many of his fellow intellectual émigrés, he had had it with American pop culture), but they're not really any more so than Testament of Dr. Mabuse or M. The important point, though, is that Douglas Morris' plot is so brazenly idiotic that Lang's journeyman direction is certainly not enough to salvage the film.

First, no one has any moral qualms about distracting the police from finding the actual killer by framing the wrong guy? Second, despite being a supposed indictment of our legal system, the film actually perpetuates the myth that justice is rationally meted out, capable of correcting itself, rather than a matter of bureaucracy. Once convicted, so the plan goes, Tom will be absolved by the delivery of Austin's counter-evidence. As we should all know by the numerous instances of wrongful convictions, there first has to be some demonstration that the trial was performed incorrectly (a bureaucratic concern), not merely the existence of a well argued countervailing attestation after the fact. Tom would be looking at 10 years behind bars even with photographs of his innocence. Third, how does providing concrete evidence that Tom was the killer point to the injustice of the death penalty? It's an adolescent skepticism that says of everything, well, it could be a trick. Maybe Mumia didn't really shoot that cop, men only landed on a sound stage in Burbank and we're all just brains in a vat. If all of reality is really just fiction, then fiction is reality, and that's all we have to go on. All of the manufactured data indicts Tom, so his receiving the sentence is fair. It would only be unjust if he got off when the same evidential amount put others (such as a minority population) on deathrow. But the film doesn't make a case against that. *SPOILER* Fourth and finally, what kind of numbskull would go along with this plan knowing that he's in fact the killer? One of the worst twist endings I've yet come across.

In summary, I like that poster.

Next, Desperate by Anthony Mann...

Relevant Tags

Film Noir (39), Fritz Lang (5), Beyond A Reasonable Doubt (1), Cinema Criticism (32)