Joan Fontaine and Dana Andrews in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)


(director: Fritz Lang; screenwriter: Douglas Morrow; cinematographer: William Snyder; editor: Gene Fowler Jr.; music: Herschel Burke Gilbert; cast: Dana Andrews (Tom Garrett), Joan Fontaine (Susan Spencer), Sidney Blackmer (Austin Spencer), Arthur Franz (Bob Hale), Philip Bourneuf (Roy Thompson), Ed Binns (Lt. Kennedy), Robin Raymond (Terry Larue), Barbara Nichols (Dolly Moore), William Leicester (Charlie Miller), Shepperd Strudwick (Jonathan Wilson); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Bert Friedlob; RKO; 1956)

“Twisty courtroom drama about the dangers of capital punishment.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Cheerlessly written with many plot holes, implausible contrivances and legal absurdities by law school graduate Douglas Morrow, though ably directed by film noir maven Fritz Lang (“M”/While The City Sleeps”/”Scarlet Street”). Lang’s last American film is a low-budget twisty courtroom drama about the dangers of capital punishment that ends up being about something more intangible–the unpredictability of fate. It sets up such a nasty moral dilemma with its gimmick of a novelist framing himself as a murderer that it keeps one at an arm’s distance from the characters while stringing the participants along as pawns to prove a point about the law not always working. It makes the moralists against capital punishment seem smug, simple-minded and even criminal in intent. By tampering with the justice system to justify its theory that an innocent person can be sentenced to die on just circumstantial evidence, it actually commits a criminal act and by the time it recovers its balance and redeems itself with a powerful and convincing twisty dramatic ending–the film was too far gone to be saved. But it does provide much to think about on how the wheels of justice turn, as it goes past its simple aim to question capital punishment and turns its attention on mulling over the complexities of a sinister world.

Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) is a poor boy from the Midwest who left his newspaper job to write his first novel. The book was a modest success and he’s now under pressure from his publisher to get out his next book while he’s hot. He’s engaged to the wealthy socialite Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine), whose father is crusading liberal newspaper publisher Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer). Austin is against capital punishment, is anxious for Tom to marry his daughter and has an idea for Tom’s next book that seems thought out by a lunatic. Austin wants Tom to incriminate himself for the recent unsolved local murder case of a burlesque dancer to prove a point that an innocent man can get the electric chair. Tom agrees to pose as the possible killer and they plant evidence at the crime scene that shows it’s possible that he’s the murderer and Austin photographs the evidence and keeps it locked in his safe. The plan includes Tom dating Dolly Moore (Barbara Nichols), who worked at the same strip joint as the victim. This causes Susan to break the engagement, which earlier Tom had postponed. Soon Tom is arrested on the suspicion he’s the murderer and the ambitious DA, Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf), decides to prosecute the case. Building a case on strictly the planted circumstantial evidence, the case goes to trial. Just before the jury verdict Austin dies in a freak car accident and all the evidence of Tom’s innocence goes up in flames. Even after Tom tells his lawyer (Shepperd Strudwick) about what the two planned, the judge refuses to stop the jury from presenting their guilty verdict. The assistant district attorney, Bob Hale (Arthur Franz), a former suitor of Susan’s, helps her to try and stop Tom’s execution. But in this subversive film a perverse atmosphere of subliminal uncertainty prevails over the established surface reality, and the surprise ending comes as more of an emotional shock than as a real surprise–allowing the filmmaker to pass on his cynicism and disillusionment over the human condition. The stark, alluring and unconventional film is worth seeing for the ingenuous way it resolves the brain-teasing dilemma it raised.