“Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” was Fritz Lang’s last film in America. Having fought with producers and studios over the years he decided to stop making movies (He actually moved back to Germany and made his final films in his homeland). At the center of this final Hollywood film is the always highly sensitive issue of capital punishment. Does man have the right to take another’s life? Is the law giving another man, the executioner, a legal right to kill? In the film’s opening scene, we see a convicted murderer walking the last mile to the electric chair. One of the witnesses is Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews), a former newspaper reporter and now a novelist engaged to Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine), the daughter of Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), newspaper publisher, Garrett’s former boss and an anti-capital punishment advocate. While Garrett is sure, if a man is being put to death by the law he must be guilty…Spencer is not. When a young and beautiful stripper is found murdered, the two men concoct a plan; plant enough circumstantial evidence in the murder case, making it look like Garrett is a strong suspect, enough for him to be arrested and put on trial by the politically motivated D.A. Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf) who will push for the death penalty. The only proof of Tom’s innocence is photographs taken by Spencer of Garrett planting evidence that has incriminated him. Spencer keeps the “evidence” in his safe at his home. The two men do not even confide in Susan, Garrett’s fiancée, of their plot. It
all goes as planned; Garrett becomes suspected of the crime, is arrested and put on trail.
With the jury in deliberation, Spencer takes the photographic evidence from his safe and is set to bring it to court to free Garrett. While driving to the courthouse he is struck by a truck, his vehicle bursting into a ball of fire killing him and destroying the only evidence of the plot he and Garrett conspired. Upon hearing the tragic news, Garrett desperately explains the entire charade to the court protesting his innocence but to no avail, he remains scheduled for execution.
Susan organizes a campaign to find enough evidence to clear Garrett of the murder. When she visits him in jail to tell him the good news of her findings, Garrett unexpectedly lets slip out a bit of information that only the murderer would know exposing himself at the real killer (it turns out the murder victim was Garrett’s ex-wife, a nightclub dancer, from a bad first marriage). With this unanticipated omission of guilt Susan walks out of the jail letting the execution take place.
Dana Andrews character makes for a strong victim. He is effective, if not necessarily a likable person. He is a writer in needs of a subject for his next book. The plan his future father-in-law and he cook up sounds intriguing and both men hope to prove their own point of view on the subject of capital punishment. Of course, you may wonder why is he putting himself through this when he is on the verge of getting married to the beautiful Joan Fontaine who is left out in the cold on the plan and may be a little pissed eventually when it is all over that he and her father went through with this dangerous charade.
Lang’s final Hollywood production continues with one of his most consistent themes; an innocent man set on a course out of his control in a society that sucks individuals in like a vacuum. Along with “You Only Live Once” and “Fury”t his film suggest that individual’s have little power over their life, a lack of control in directing his or her own destiny. Outside forces, like the justice system, or in the case of “Fury,” mob violence and group thinking dominating one man’s fate.
Fritz Lang was not a happy camper during the making of this film. Battles with producer Bert L. Friedlob left him drained. Friedlob forced Dana Andrews on Lang. A bad alcoholic, Andrews drank throughout the filming adding to Lang’s despair. Friedlob also battled Lang on the ending of the film, first saying he wanted to film the electrocution as graphic as possible (The Celluloid Muse – Higham and Greenberg), later denying this after a front office spy claimed Lang was shooting this explicit scene of his own accord. In the end, Lang filmed the ending as it is in the final film with Susan forsaking Garrett in his jail cell as he awaits his execution. Lang was right. There was no need to show the execution, the audience is well aware of what fate awaits Garrett. The front office battles though had left Lang drained. The fight wasn’t in him anymore. He did not like the film which had left a bad taste in his mouth.
The element of an innocent man in prison was not new, James Cagney played a crusading newspaper reporter who is framed for murder in Warner’s 1939’s film, “Each Dawn I Die.” and Peter Breck got himself put into a mental institution to solve a murder in Sam Fuller’s “Shock Corridor.” The film is based on a story and screenplay by Douglas Morrow, a lawyer, who probably should know how foolish an attempt this would be to trick the court, undermining justice. Most likely all involved would find themselves behind bars. That said, “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” is a taut thriller with a convincing twist of an ending, even if the legal premise is a bit shaky. Like Lang himself at the time, the film is filled with acidity and disillusionment. The film was the second of two films Lang had on the screen in 1956. Earlier in the year came the tough, riveting, “While the City Sleeps” also produced by Friedlob.
Financially a minor success at the time, “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” was a shattering harsh farewell note for Lang to have ended the Hollywood phase of his career.