Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)

Toronto Film Society presented Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) on Monday, July 21, 2014 in a double bill with Shock Corridor as part of the Season 67 Summer Series, Programme 3.


Austin Spencer, a newspaper publisher, wants to prove a point about the inadequacy of circumstantial evidence and also to expose the ineptitude of the city’s hard-line district attorney. He persuades Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) to participate in a hoax by planting clues that will lead to his arrest for the murder of a nightclub dancer, Patty Gray. Once Tom is found guilty, Spencer will reveal the setup and so humiliate the district attorney. Tom agrees to the plan, but Spencer dies in a car accident that also destroys the photographic evidence intended to reveal the truth at Tom’s trial, and Tom is found guilty and placed on death row. Complications follow before the true facts emerge.

Beyond a Resonable Doubt (1956)

Fritz Lang (1890-1976)

Born in Vienna and raised as a Catholic by his parents, he studied architecture and then art at university and travelled widely in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific as a young man. After volunteering for military service in World War I and being wounded three times, he worked briefly for the theatre before being hired as a scriptwriter and then director for the German film company UFa, just as the Expressionist movement was getting under way. He quickly gained an international reputation for his work in Germany in the 1920s with such silent films as his two Dr Mabuse titles (1922 and 1933) and Die Niebelungen (1923-24), though his most ambitious and expensive work of the period Metropolis (1925-26) was at first a huge box-office flop and cut to ribbons in most countries in an attempt to make it commercially viable. Painstaking reconstructions of the film in recent years, however, achieved by piecing together fragments from prints found as away as Argentina, have made it one of the most admired and widely screened of all silent films. His first sound film M (1931) a powerful study of a serial child killer, but also an indictment of uncontrolled mob justice, was internationally acclaimed for its imaginative use of the new medium and was highly influential. By his own account (which has sometimes been contested by critics), he later claimed that, despite his strongly anti-Nazi politics, he was offered the position of head of the main German film studio UFa by Hitler=s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in 1934, following which he promptly left Germany for France, leaving behind his wife and frequent scriptwriter, Thea von Harbou, who was a fervent supporter of the Nazis. There he made one film, Liliom, before accepting an offer from MGM and moving to Hollywood, where he stayed till 1957, before returning to Germany and making two final films.

In the US he was one of many eminent film directors, novelists, musicians and playwrights who had emigrated from Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied France. Among the filmmakers were Jean Renoir, René Clair, Max Ophuls, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Robert Siodmak, who, between them, made an immense contribution to American cinema of the 1940s and 1950s, especially in the areas of film noir, socially or politically themed thrillers, and (in Lang=s case) unorthodox Westerns. Some of his films, such as Hangmen Also Die and Cloak and Dagger (shown in a recent TFS series) were explicitly anti-Nazi and his 22 American films include such masterpieces as Fury (1936), The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Heat (1953) and While the City Sleeps (1955). Critical opinion at the time was often lukewarm towards these films, seeing them as little more than standard melodramas, but many of them are now acknowledged as major works of the period.

Throughout his career Lang=s visual style was highly (some critics say coldly) geometrical, relying on carefully composed and framed compositions, and elaborate play of light and shadow. Clocks and doorways are recurrent images that take on overtones of menace and inexplicable anxiety, and themes of paranoia, pursuit, mistaken identity, wrongful accusation, disguise, foreboding, and violent retribution, usually presented in grittily realistic fashion–are common.

Beyond a Resonable Doubt (1956)

Critical Reaction

Response to this, Lang’s final Hollywood film, has always been mixed. The New York Times, while pointing out the implausibilities of the plot and its “arrant disregard” of “the technicalities of the law”, yet judged it “a fairly intriguing and brain-teasing mystery film”, with a “noxiously alluring nightclub atmosphere”, and Joan Fontaine as “a lovely, loyal sweetheart”, plus good direction by Lang. A less sympathetic verdict sees it as a swansong for a director whose career had steadily declined since his initial American film, Fury, ending appropriately with a studio, RKO, which was also in decline and had abandoned production three years earlier and was now reduced to releasing outside product.

The internet reviewer Dennis Schwartz, while admitting that the film is “Cheerlessly written with many plot holes, implausible contrivances and legal absurdities by law school graduate Douglas Morrow”, nevertheless found it “a low-budget twisty courtroom drama about the dangers of capital punishment that ends up being about something more intangible–the unpredictability of fate” [a favourite theme of Lang]. “…in this subversive film a perverse atmosphere of subliminal uncertainty prevails over the established surface reality, and the surprise ending comes as more of an emotional shock than as a real surprise–allowing the filmmaker to pass on his cynicism and disillusionment over the human condition. The stark, alluring and unconventional film is worth seeing for the ingenious way it resolves the brain-teasing dilemma it raised.”

Beyond a Resonable Doubt (1956)

Dana Andrews (1909-1992)

Born Carver Dana Andrews on a farmstead in Mississippi, his family moved to Texas where he attended Sam Houston State University and then, hoping to find work as an actor he moved to California, where he studied theatre and acting at the Pasadena Playhouse, and became an acclaimed member of the company, attracting the attention of Samuel Goldwyn, who offered him a movie contract. His first film role was in The Westerner (1940) and this led to his finest period as an actor in the following decade with Ball of Fire (1941–as a gangster), The Oxbow Incident (1943–as a lynching victim), Laura (1944–as an obsessed detective), The Best Years of Our Life (1946–as an air force veteran) and State Fair (1945–as a singer in a musical in which he starred with Jeanne Craine). His career began to stall in 1950s as a result of his alcoholism, and, after Where the Sidewalk Ends in 1950 he moved more into B-movies, though he had success in Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1957) and Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957). His later work was mostly in radio, after he had brought his alcoholism under control, and he died from heart failure in 1992 at the age of 83.

Beyond a Resonable Doubt (1956)

Joan Fontaine (1919-2013)

Born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland in Tokyo to British parents who separated in 1919, after which her mother, a stage actress, took Joan and her older sister Olivia to the United States., where they settled in California. Joan returned to live with her father in Japan when she was sixteen and then retuned to the US in 1935, where she made her stage debut (taking the professional name of Joan Fontaine) and was soon signed by RKO. After appearing in some minor roles, she became touted as a rising star, appearing with Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress in 1937; but when the film flopped she was reduced to minor roles once more and her contract was not renewed. After meeting producer David O. Selznick in 1940 and discovering that they were both interested in Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, Selznick asked her to audition for the leading role in his planned film of the book, to be directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and, after competing with hundreds of other actresses, she secured the role. The film received glowing reviews and she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress; though she did not win that year, she won for Best Actress in 1942 for Hitchcock’s Suspicion.

Her award served to accentuate the budding rivalry (dating apparently from their childhood) between her and her actress sister Olivia de Havilland, who had been nominated the same year for her role in Hold Back the Dawn, when Fontaine apparently deliberately slighted de Havilland when her sister attempted to congratulate her on winning the award. This apparently inaugurated a lifelong feud that lasted till 1975 and later resulted in mutual accusations  concerning medical treatment of their ailing mother.

Meanwhile Fontaine’s career flourished in such films as The Constant Nymph (1943), Jane Eyre (1943) and Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948). She turned more to radio, television and the stage in the 1950s, winning some acclaim for stage productions in particular, before retiring in 1994. She was married and divorced four times, including to actor Brian Aherne from 1939 to 1945.

Notes by Graham Petrie

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