Fritz Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) is as emotional as dried fruit. Supposedly inspired by Sam Fuller (who later made the similar-minded Shock Corridor (1963)), the story is about a reporter who frames himself when the police fail to find a suspect in a murder case. The reporter (Dana Andrews) needs a scoop for his new novel, so he and a journalist (intent on debasing capital punishment) go about leaving clues at the scene of the crime and photographing them in the process: evidence to acquit Andrews at the last moment. Everything goes according to plan, and Andrews is arrested, tried, and found guilty…only on the way to the courthouse with all the photographs, the journalist is killed in a car crash. The evidence, needless to say, burns along with Andrews’ only alibi.
Lang’s condemnation of the judicial process is insightful, if caricatured. The DA is a silver-haired conservative with a nineteenth century moustache. He hams up every speech with such emphasis that only the most gullible jury would fall for it. But, on the other hand, Andrews planted such convincing evidence, ambiguous as well as condemning, that their finding him guilty seems plausible. Lang really takes to task social phobia: one man’s fear of another, as well as the “want” for guilt, the need to find a guilty party.
The final twist to the story should be a revelatory moment—something as shocking as the end of Witness for the Prosecution (1957) where Marlene Dietrich bares the knife—but the drama never develops (a criticism of the entire film, in fact). After finally unearthing evidence and being acquitted, Andrews reunites with his fiancée. He lets slip, however, a fatal clue…Andrews, who claimed never to have known the murder victim, uses her real name instead of the stage name she had been using for years. He, in fact, was the murderer. The look on his and his fiancée’s face is more suited to fixing a furnace.
Such a scene should throw the audience on their ass; only the script mishandled the situation. Nowhere in the film was there mention of Andrews’ relationship with the murdered woman, and no background information about either of them. Our empathy evolves solely on a visual trust: Andrews is a well-dressed, wealthy gentleman, therefore we trust him. The victim is never seen: that she is a cheap burlesque dancer (such a prim euphemism for prostitute) is enough to mark her off any possible relationship with such the princely Andrews. However much Lang reveals about the spectator’s instinctual feelings toward wealth and beauty, it remains facile and impotent.
The most fascinating aspect of the film is the photographic evidence that is destroyed in the car wreck. If the evidence was all fake, then why was it so hard to prove Andrews’ innocence? Something so ephemeral as a photograph really carries a lot of importance. The issue of anonymity and existence is also a key to modern living, and, if he were alive today, Lang would be fascinated by the Internet’s ability to track where we go online, and the Patriot Act’s invasion of private records. Even the Nazi’s (whom Lang fled in the early 1930s) were intent on the systemization of life: the yellow, star patches on jackets; and later, the tattooed numbers. It is not only us that document our lives, but it is a larger, conspiratorial “they” who keep track of us for their own reasons. This, the need to prove one’s own identity, is Lang’s most vehement concern.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.