BIG HOUSE FILM REVIEWS ~ Roger Westcombe
BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (1956)
Dana Andrews, Joan Fontaine; dir: Fritz Lang
This, Fritz Lang’s last Hollywood film, suggests to us that Scott Fitzgerald was wrong – there are second acts in American lives – but that General Douglas Macarthur was right. Old soldiers do just fade away, because for the filmmaker who created such American classics as Scarlet Street and The Big Heat, plus a slew of extraordinary films along the way, Beyond A Reasonable Doubt is an unremarkable swansong.
Doubt betrays its low budget in numerous ways. It looks so ordinary, overlit and with mostly conventional camera set-ups and un-designed sets that it echoes the television crime shows which were then stealing the noir audience away. And in an environment where the contrived plot is accepted practice, Doubt is so ridiculously contrived it beggars the necessary suspension of disbelief. Perhaps in his mind Lang had already left Hollywood and simply didn’t care; there is a whiff of contractual obligation about Beyond A Reasonable Doubt.
The pervasive feel of the film is seamy and tawdry, with the low rent bump-and-grind ‘burlesque’ house Club Zombie accounting for an unusually large amount of screen time, much of which is dedicated less to advancing the mad plot than to indulgently observed details of backstage bodysuits and catty dialogue.
An unwelcome Lang parallel arises between how different the results were for this Lang/Dana/1956 project and the Lang/Dana/1956 While The City Sleeps, a strong, pacy amalgam of crime detection and big city newspaper themes with a distinctly Teutonic tang. The parallel is with his earlier twinning of Edward G.Robinson/Joan Bennett/Dan Duryea in Scarlet Street (1946) and its vastly inferior Edward G.Robinson/Joan Bennett/Dan Duryea predecessor with a near identical plot The Woman in the Window (1944). Once appears to be enough for Lang.
Beyond A Reasonable Doubt is late Dana Andrews, when he’d lost the man-of-steel looks that bullied him through Where The Sidewalk Ends, and he just seems grumpy. Joan Fontaine seems to be in a different film – icy and demure yet libidinous, with nowhere to go.
An exception to the generally wooden camera-work comes in a pair of distinctively framed scenes. Photographs of Dana proving his alibi see him looking direct to camera, thus involving the viewer in his predicament. As we receive Dana’s gaze, we return it, and thus become complicit in his claims of innocence.
Later some of the trial is conveyed as television coverage, mediating its presentation to us. This distances viewers, rendering them removed from the justice processes, not unlike the high overhead shots in his classic M, operating as an anatomy of the activities of criminal retribution. It’s a brief object lesson in cinema from a master filmmaker. The shame of this is it seems as effortless as the rest of Beyond A Reasonable Doubt.
Roger Westcombe's own website is at: http://www.bighousefilm.com/
For additional material on Fritz Lang and 'Beyond a Reasonable Doubt' you might want to look at:
Derek Malcolm, 'Fritz Lang: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt' (Thursday November 30, 2000), The Guardian, at: http://film.guardian.co.uk/Century_Of_Films/Story/0,4135,405134,00.html
Jeffrey Scheuer, 'Fritz Lang', http://www.jscheuer.com/lang.htm
Lang Thompson, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, Turner Classic Movies review, at:
Rob White, The Permanent Magic of Fritz Lang', BFI site (also contains other Lang links) at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/lang/magic.html
Daniel Shaw, 'Fritz Lang', Senses of Cinema, at: