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The surprise-filled thriller Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) may have been director Fritz Lang's final American film but it's certainly not one of his lesser ones. Analytically inclined viewers can still find Lang's familiar themes of guilt and innocence but anybody else will delight in trying to out-guess the various twists in the engaging story. Critic Derek Malcolm wrote, "It is a film of great economy and precision (it lasts only 80 minutes), with the terrifying inevitability of Greek tragedy and a pervading sense that man is his own worst enemy."
In fact, we don't want to give too much of the story away but we can let this much slip out: Novelist Dana Andrews is dating the daughter (Joan Fontaine) of a publisher (Sidney Blackmer) opposed to capital punishment. The publisher hatches a scheme where he and the novelist create enough circumstantial evidence in an unrelated case of a murdered dancer that Andrews appears to be responsible. They plan to spring Andrews at the last minute by revealing their deception and basking in a whirlwind of publicity about the unreliability of capital sentences and circumstantial evidence.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was acclaimed by many, though certainly not all, critics. Jean-Luc Godard picked it as one of the year's ten best, snuggled right between Chaplin's A King in New York and Bunuel's The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz. However, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt didn't have a very smooth production. Director Lang felt forced into the film by producer Bert Friedlob and, tired of fighting, he restrained much of his legendary combativeness. It didn't help that Dana Andrews was drinking, resulting in missed deadlines until the studio assigned a man to monitor Andrews (which didn't work). Even the beginning and ending of the film resulted in fights between Lang and Friedlob. A portion of the opening execution scene was toned down by the producer (but apparently not as much as he would have liked). As for the unusual climax, Lang finally stood his ground (even though he told Peter Bogdanovich "I was very afraid of the ending"). At least the script was by a one-time lawyer, Douglas Morrow, who had earlier won an Oscar for The Stratton Story (1949).
But all these struggles capped Lang's growing dissatisfaction with Hollywood until he finally told Friedlob, "I don't want to have anything to do with you anymore or the American motion picture industry." After Lang's departure, editor Gene Fowler, Jr., a personal friend of the director, put the film together following Lang's instructions closely. (Fowler would later direct the B-movie classic, I Married a Monster from Outer Space, 1958) Lang directed three more films in Europe: a two-part remake of The Indian Tomb (1959) and the surveillance-mad 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960). He also had an unforgettable acting role in Godard's Contempt (1963) as a director trying to make a film version of The Odyssey.
Producer: Bert E. Friedlob
Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Douglas Morrow (also story)
Art Direction: Carroll Clark
Cinematography: William Snyder
Film Editing: Gene Fowler, Jr.
Original Music: Herschel Burke Gilbert
Principal Cast: Dana Andrews (Tom Garrett), Joan Fontaine (Susan Spencer), Sidney Blackmer (Austin Spencer), Arthur Franz (Hale), Philip Bourneuf (Thompson), Barbara Nichols (Dolly Moore), Shepperd Strudwick (Wilson).
BW-81m. Closed captioning.
by Lang Thompson