Monday, January 21, 2008

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

"Beyond a Reasonable Doubt" is a film so twisted, so improbable, so bungled in its execution, that it's little wonder it’s the last film its director, Fritz Lang, made before returning to Germany. Dana Andrews' gives a strangely offbeat performance, while the rest of the cast is completely forgettable. The story, written by Douglas Morrow, sounds interesting enough: A writer, under pressure to come up with interesting material before a deadline, takes the suggestion of a wealthy and highly-respected newspaper publisher to frame himself for a murder he didn't commit in order to prove how easy it is to sentence the wrong man to capital punishment. Dana Andrews gives his performance the necessary amount of staid, calm steadfastness and earnestness, willing to go to extreme lengths to get his story. Lang also sets up nicely the tension between the district attorney Thompson, so eager to push for the maximum penalty, and the newspaper publisher, whose anti-capital punishment stance has made him unpopular with Thompson. To complicate matters, Andrews is engaged to the publisher’s daughter, so her reaction is understandably one of shock and disappointment when her fiancĂ© steps up to take the blame for the murder of a stripper. The premise is full of holes-if Andrews and publisher Sidney Blackmer plant the evidence so thoroughly and carefully, why should it be so unreasonable when he's convicted? But this is only the beginning of the complete illogic that ruins this picture, which must rank as one of the worst in the career of its director, Fritz Lang.

The film would appear to be a story of fate, of unplanned intervention preventing the successful triumph of the protagonist. The initial premise could have delivered, but the film fails to live up to its interesting idea and instead inverts on itself through an incredibly inconceivable plot point that, worse than being merely far-fetched and even impossible within the context of the story, actually results in a less satisfying picture.

I cannot reveal the further illogic of the story without giving away the ending, but my initial reaction upon seeing the film was that it represented a moving away from the core of the pessimistic themes of film noir into a territory of standard crime drama. Lang’s best work has always focused on the victimization of a flawed individual; in this case, he offers a variation on that theme which fails to work.

The characterizations are so shallow that it’s little wonder we find it hard to identify, let alone care, about their actions and consequences. Joan Fontaine gives a strangely hollow and, at times, contradictory performance as Andrews’ fiancĂ©e, one minute standing steadfastly by his side, and the next being completely willing to accuse of the murder. Sidney Blacker offers one of the only performances in the film that stands out at all, that of the publisher with a strong anti-capital punishment stance. Special mention should go to Philip Bourneuf, who gives the role of Thompson the necessary amount of cold-heartedness, so willing to send a man to death row, only for political gain.

The film contains the appropriate amount of Expressionistic lighting, courtesy of cinematographer William Snyder, but overall lacks the kind of nightmarish, overbearing qualities that can be found in the best crime dramas of the period. Instead, there are many scenes that are lit like a police procedural, as if we’re watching an extended episode of “Dragnet”. These take away from the frenetic and frantic atmosphere that would serve this story best.

The anti-capital punishment angle may seem intriguing, but surprisingly (or perhaps not), Lang fails to take any stance on the subject at all. In fact, far from standing by the initial premise that an innocent man could easily be wrongly convicted and sentenced to death on circumstantial evidence, he rather seems to be saying that regardless of how much evidence or testimony or investigation is available, the guilty man always gets the chair. The illogic in the film is so overbearing, you’ll find yourself wondering what just happened when it finally ends.

At 80 minutes, the film is mercifully short, but I couldn’t help but feel the second half was still dragged out entirely too long. Almost as if there should have been more time spent in setting up the background of the Andrews character. Unfortunately, with a film such as this, it is difficult to discuss the plot in any detail without giving away crucial plot points, but suffice it to say when the true identity of the protagonist is revealed at the end, you’ll find it improbable, to say the least.

It’s interesting to compare the theme of this story with the film that in many ways defined Lang’s style, his 1931 German masterpiece, M. In that film, Lang gave us a character whose thoroughly despicable actions were countered by genuine psychological distress and torment, offering a much more convincing kind of moral gray area in which to judge the character. He would have done well to repeat that idea here. Stylistically, too, M has more in common with the films noir of the 1940s and 50s.

Lang and screenwriter Douglas Morrow have crafted an unlikely story out of an interesting premise which fails to deliver on its potential. Stylistically, Lang has created a film which at times violates its own sense of atmosphere and tone established at other points of the film. Finally, the film is a disappointment at almost every level, failing to engage and maintain concerns for any of its characters, and hitting the audience with an ending so unpredictable you’ll feel as if Lang was simply cheating.