#28 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
Courtroom dramas have limited appeal to me. They largely feel fake with artificial drama that would never actually happen in the setting. Sometimes a film can get past that, as in Fury, and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt actually ends up getting close. The drama isn’t supposed to be within the courtroom itself, so the courtroom stuff plays out realistically. The overall situation stretches credulity, and there are some late-stage reveals that make things interesting. However, that interest only goes so far, and the film doesn’t quite come together as well as it could have.
Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer) is the editor of a big city paper and is very opposed to the death penalty. His main target in his editorials is the district attorney Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf) who obviously has ambitions to use his current position to eventually run for governor. A criminal gets executed during the title sequence, a man convicted based purely on circumstantial evidence, and Austin develops an idea. If his newspaper could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone convicted of murder and sentenced to death after a jury convicted him based on the legal barrier of beyond a reasonable doubt, it could be the kind of thing that gets the people of the state to rethink the death penalty in general. This is actually just implied, which is a weird thing for a movie about a newspaper. Newspapers have always been known for public campaigns for social causes, so making Austin the kind of newspaperman who is dedicated to just presenting facts feels off (I wonder if Lang understood the American press at all).
Anyway, Austin enlists the help of the novelist and one of his former employees, Tom (Dana Andrews), to be the guy they frame for a murder while keeping evidence of his innocence. Tom is also engaged to Austin’s daughter Susan (Joan Fontaine), both of whom Tom and Austin agree to keep out of the know of their plan. They find an unsolved murder in the paper the next morning, and they get to work. After some off-the-record investigation with the police, they know that there is no possible suspect, so they set out on framing Tom. They get him talking to the girl’s dancing partners that shared her dressing room, most notably Dolly Moore (Barbara Nichols) with whom Tom ends up taking out (a situation discovered by Susan very quickly which leads to her calling off their engagement). They plant evidence around the crime scene, and get Dolly so worked up that she calls the police who take Tom up on suspicion of the murder.
Now, for anyone who’s ever watched a movie before, one should know that the plan isn’t going to follow through easily. Something is going to happen that prevents the evidence from coming to the attention of the DA at the right moment, and that something does happen. It creates some nice tension, even if the actual turn of events was predictable, as Tom and Susan struggle to find any evidence that will support Tom’s last-second story change that not only is he innocent but that he intentionally framed himself. We get a host of twists and turns as it eventually gets to its Hays Board approved conclusion (it would have been better had it been made a decade later without that restriction).
What’s kind of interesting is that the movie starts out feeling like an issue movie, but there’s a key line near the beginning that I should have picked up on. “You can’t prove that the death penalty is bad with fiction,” Austin says (paraphrased) to Tom, and it’s said in a fictional piece. Is this going to be a serious take on the death penalty? Well, if you believe the movie: no, it’s not. And it turns out to not be. It’s a twisting tale of murder that uses the death penalty almost like a McGuffin.
Where the movie stumbles is in its treatment of the press (“we only present the facts” is a complete myth and always has been), the rather mundane nature of Dana Andrews as the main character, and the overstuffed finale. It’s a push and pull of revelations, the biggest of which really should have been the ending point that would have offered the tale the kind of ironically depressing ending one would expect from a noir. However, because there’s so much, there’s little time for the movie to dedicate itself to the ideas they present, so it’s just a quick progression of events without any real development or consideration. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it ruins the ending, but it doesn’t help.
It’s better than While the City Sleeps, but this is Fritz Lang ending his career in Hollywood on a minor note, at best. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is somewhat clever, but it doesn’t have the depth of something like Scarlet Street or The Big Heat. The small budget is unfortunate, but it doesn’t matter when your main actor is largely a non-entity and the ending is something of a mess.