Tom Garrett's a reporter on leave from his job. As Tom's having difficulty writing the book, his boss, publisher Austin Spencer, suggests he write a non-fiction book on capital punishment, The pair set out to frame Tom for a murder he didn't commit in order to eradicate capital punishment.Written by
Fritz Lang's twenty years as a Hollywood refugee, which had started so spiritedly with "Fury", gradually wound down to the grey, listless offering that is "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt". True, Lang's first and last titles have family resemblances. "Fury" concerns a man who may or may not have committed a capital crime but who deserves due process rather than lynching; "Doubt" is about a guy who frames himself to prove that the irrevocable sentence of capital punishment, legal or not, is never justifiable if the law is fallible.
But whereas the argument of "Fury" was driven full steam ahead by a master of montage ("Metropolis") and suspenseful pacing ("M"), "Doubt" consists largely of two- or three-shots of men in suits with "display kerchiefs", arguing in paneled offices with unraised voices. The story has its due ration of twists as Dana Andrews's writer is persuaded by his prospective father-in-law, a crusading press magnate, to set himself up as a burlesque dancer's killer; the two of them will keep records of the plot that are sure to exonerate Andrews before he faces the chair. (Wouldn't he get a stiff sentence for wasting the cops' time, though?)
But the focus shifts awkwardly from Andrews to his girl and lawyer as it unwinds, and the scenario is oddly bare of dramatic crises. For example, the press boss's death occurs off screen and his exoneration is brought in by his lawyer, not tracked down by his daughter, Andrews's fiancée. Only a few backstage scenes with the dancing girls, all peroxide and nasal cynicism, enliven proceedings. Andrews had begun to freeze into the stone faced stolidity which hampered his later career, while 39 year old Fontaine (the classic aging actress's age) is matronly in costume, maquillage and demeanor: encased in stately prissiness like other English ladies of Hollywood such as Garson and Kerr.
Apart from Fontaine the production looks as well as feels impoverished, aesthetically like Ida Lupino's and Collier Young's problem pics but without their punch. The final twist is not signaled strongly enough to give smarter audience members a decent chance of foreseeing it. At one ludicrous moment, the publisher suggests his guests catch up on the day's highlights in Andrews's murder trial: he turns on a TV which immediately and obligingly recounts them, like George Burns's magic set on "The Burns and Allen Show". Incidentally, was covering trials and commenting on them normal for American television c. 1955?
"Beyond a Reasonable Doubt" was a swansong not only for Lang but for RKO. It had abandoned production three years earlier after being wrecked by Howard Hughes, had sold its studio to Desi and Lucy and was now reduced to releasing outside product: in this instance from one Bert Friedlob. It really was time for Herr Lang to catch the plane back to de-Nazified Germany.
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