Monday, May 4, 2020
Noir Watch: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)
Format: Noir Ally on TCM on DVR
Director: Fritz Lang
This one hadn't really been on my radar, but with Fritz Lang directing - his final American film, no less - and starring Dana Andrews, and both coming off the heels of a movie I thoroughly enjoy, While the City Sleeps, I saw no reason not to give it a spin. In some ways, and from an elevator pitch angle, the plotting is very similar to 1963's Samuel Fuller directed Shock Corridor, but Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) is a different type of movie, even if the two films definitely share significant DNA.
Andrews plays a reporter-turned-novelist, engaged to Joan Fontaine, the WASPy-est possible bride-to-be, and daughter of his former employer - the publisher of a prominent big city newspaper. Andrews' father-in-law is anti-death-penalty, and looking for angle to better highlight the questions around execution of criminals, especially as a new DA is reaching for the death penalty at every opportunity as his path to the Governorship.
Andrews agrees to a plan to frame himself as the murderer and land in jail, knowing his father-in-law will provide the necessary evidence to clear him before things go to far and his paper can make his point. Where Shock Corridor more or less starts in media res, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt shows how Andrews and his father-in-law work to get him landed in jail as a suspect.
There's a solid set-up with Andrews beginning to recreate the murder scenario and draw the attention of the cops by leaving clues and "pursuing" burlesque dancer Barbara Nichols - a colleague of a real murder victim. Nichols and fellow dancer Robin Raymond are frankly a delight in the movie, cheesy without going too far into camp to distract from the picture's tone.
Once Andrews is in Jail, of course, is where things go wrong as his father-in-law dies in an auto accident, the only one who could definitively prove his innocence. After a mad search, none of the documentation created by Fontaine's father is found, despite frantic searches.
I won't spoil the ending twist, but it's a doozy and one I didn't see coming, but did make me want to rewatch the movie for more than Nichols' daffy performance. And any concern you had that maybe Shock Corridor was a rip off of this movie becomes abundantly clear - this movie has entirely different goals, and lives in the land of pot boiler with a dash of social question (and definitely has its cake and eats it, too), while Shock Corridor is set on exploration of the social issue, withing the context of a pot boiler.
In general, I'm a Fritz Lang fan. Muller stated that some critics *preferred* his work on Beyond a Reasonable Doubt because it stripped away much of Lang's particulars in tone and visuals. I... beg to differ. The movie works, certainly, but mostly in retrospect when you hit the last ten minutes and begin pulling all the threads together. Prior to that, an audience watching the film on television might turn it off as a well-made but standard-issue film without enough to keep them invested.
While I was, in fact, a huge fan of how the film ends, and liked Andrews and Nichols well enough, a lack of visual thumb print and standard Hollywood look from the time isn't much of a selling point.