Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)



On the surface Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) has everything going for him. He's a successful novelist and engaged to the beautiful and wealthy Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine). But the restless Tom keeps postponing their marriage. When Susan's father, newspaper publisher Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), and Tom witness an execution, the two concoct a plan to prove that circumstantial evidence can send an innocent man to the electric chair. They want to prove to District Attorney Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf) that the justice system is inherently flawed in this way. The unsolved case of the murdered nightclub performer Patty Gray seems to be the perfect case for them to tackle. The two work together building up fake evidence to make it seem like Tom killed Patty. When Tom is inevitably arrested and brought to court, the end of their game is in sight. But when Austin Spencer dies in a fiery car crash on the way to the court house with the documents that will absolve Tom, now he's on his own. That is unless his fiancee Susan, who hadn't been privy to Austin and Tom's plan, can save him. But when Susan finds out something shocking about Tom, and why he wouldn't commit to a wedding date, she has to face some harsh truths and make one of the biggest decisions of her life.


Dana Andrews and Joan Fontaine in a publicity photo for Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Sidney Blackmer and Dana Andrews in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) has one of the best plot twists of all time. I've watched it on several occasions and even though I know the ending the film gets under my skin with every viewing. I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it because the twist is what makes this movie so good. And beyond the plot device, the movie's exploration of capital punishment, double jeopardy and the justice system overall is thought-provoking.

This novel concept came from the mind of writer Douglas Morrow. Not only was Morrow an Academy Award winning screenwriter (The Stratton Story), he was also at one time an opera singer, a law student at Columbia, a movie producer and eventually went on to serve on an advisory council for NASA. The Space Foundation even has a public outreach award named in his honor. The original plan was for Morrow to create his own independent production company and develop his story idea into a screenplay with Ida Lupino. They both had Joseph Cotten in mind to star in the role of Tom Garrett. However, that plan fell through and another independent producer, Bert Friedlob, bought the rights to Morrow's story. Lupino and Cotten were eventually dropped from the project. I can only surmise that if Lupino had indeed contributed to the screenplay, the female characters wouldn't be so one-dimensional as they were in the final product.

This is one of two films Friedlob worked on with director Fritz Lang. The two had a contentious relationship (you can read more about this in my article on While the City Sleeps, their first film together). They worked on both While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt simultaneously with the latter shot in Chicago over 20 days. The atmosphere on the set was rife with tension. Lang and Friedlob butted heads on many aspects of the production and couldn't come to an agreement about the ending. Eventually Lang got the ending he wanted but he wasn't satisfied in the least bit with the final picture. According to Lang biographer Patrick McGillligan, Lang said the following about Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, "I hate it but it was a great success. I don't know why." While it failed at the box office, the film would go on to receive critical praise over the years. In 2009, director Peter Hyams remade the film in a drama starring Michael Douglas, Amber Tamblyn and Jesse Metcalfe.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt proved to be its own sort of death knell. Frustrated by the lack of control he had over his film projects, Fritz Lang left Hollywood for good. He made three films in Europe before retiring. Producer Bert Friedlob, once married to actress Eleanor Parker and renowned as a lothario and businessman, died of cancer in 1956 at the age of 49 just a month after the release of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. His cancer came on suddenly and developed rapidly despite several surgeries performed to save him. RKO distributed Friedlob's final film but their demise was just around the corner. In January 1957, RKO ceased operations. Actress Joan Fontaine was nearing the end of her movie career. She made only 6 more films after this one and went on to work in TV.




Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) is available on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive Collection.
When you use my buy link to make a purchase at the WB Shop you help support this site. Thanks! The Blu-Ray features a brand new 1080p HD remaster as well as the original trailer and closed captions.

George, D.W. and Matt discuss the film on the Warner Archive Podcast episode The Darkness of Noir. For those of you participating in #Noirvember make sure you add Beyond a Reasonable Doubt to your to-be-watched list!

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me a copy of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) on Blu-Ray for review!

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