I bloody love Fritz Lang. From the Dr Mabuse silent movie years right up to his underrated adventure final picture, Journey to the Lost City, Lang’s work was drenched in dark mastery and expressionism, which – much to his displeasure and further emigration to Paris – lead to him being Hitler and Goebbels favourite filmmaker. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, his last movie made in the States, is a low-budget courtroom drama which tackles the regular noir dilemma of moral injustice in a new, if slightly implausible way.
Following the death of a local nightclub showgirl, newspaper man Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), sets out on a quest to rival the problematic legal system which sees innocent men given the death penalty in the face of insubstantial evidence. Unable to do the job alone, he persuades his daughter’s fiancée, novelist Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) to help him.
Together they create a master plan, planting circumstantial evidence that links Tom to the crime; hoping that he’ll be called out as a murderer so that he can elaborately prove the flaws within the penal system, and humiliate the cocksure DA Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf) in the process. But, as always with these yarns, things don’t go according to plan, after a fatal car accident, Tom’s desperate attempt at proving his innocence to his fearful wife-to-be Susan (Joan Fontaine), and the courtroom jury becomes more difficult than he imagined.
At a slight eighty minutes running time, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt shows Fritz Lang at his most economical. Everything is tautly filmed with no single shot wasted, but Douglas Morrow’s screenplay and Andrews ever-austere performance doesn’t grip you by the scruff of the neck and shake you around like the central exoneration plot deserves.
As one of his least stylised movies, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is a nice and worthy companion piece amongst the Fritz Lang masterpieces like M, Fury, Metropolis, and While The City Sleeps (the last of which is also from 1956 and focuses on a similar ethical paradox premise). It’s mechanical, lightweight film noir, but it’s undoubtedly worth a watch for Lang fans.
PS – It was remade in 2009 by Peter Hyams, starring Michael Douglas and Jesse Metcalfe. I hear bad things.