FilmStruck Friday: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)

Welcome to this week’s edition of FilmStruck Friday! Every Friday here on TMP, with the exception of the first Friday of the month (which is reserved for “Favorite things about…”), we’ll be taking a look at a film available through the TCM and Criterion Collection streaming service. Today, a crazy Fritz Lang crime drama starring Dana Andrews. Happy viewing!

Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer) is an outspoken newspaper publisher whose most passionate cause is abolishing capital punishment. Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) is a reporter-turned-novelist who has been invited by Austin to witness an execution.

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(Image via Movie Poster Shop)

District attorney Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf) runs into Austin and Tom at a bar following the execution, where a discussion about capital punishment ensues. Thompson has “won” several executions on circumstantial evidence alone; Austin, naturally, thinks this is an awful miscarriage of justice, and that innocent men could be sent to death row over it.

Later that night, Austin is elated to learn that his daughter Susan (Joan Fontaine) and Tom have finally set a date for their wedding. But Tom wants to postpone the wedding, saying that he needs to finish his next novel.

Austin comes up with an idea: Wouldn’t it be great if Tom’s next book could raise awareness for the capital punishment issue? The two men cook up a crazy plan to find an unsolved crime, plant evidence, and send an innocent man to trial in order to prove their point about the cruelty of this punishment.

When dancer Patty Gray is found strangled, leaving the police with few leads, Austin and Tom put their plan into action… with Tom playing the role of the accused.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was directed by Fritz Lang. Douglas Morrow is credited with both story and screenplay.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt offers an exploration of the still-hotly-debated issue of capital punishment. Is there ever enough evidence to justify it? Do juries fall prey to ultra-persuasive prosecutors rather than following the law? Though the film was made six decades ago, these questions are still relevant today, as executions in the US still fall in the double digits each year.

The film’s delivery of these questions comes through a pretty dizzying premise: a man conspiring to frame himself for murder in order to uncover the reality that innocent men can be convicted and sentenced to death. It reminds me of the recent film Miss Sloane, in a way — showcasing the lengths these characters are willing to go to in order to change policy.

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(Image via BFI)

The men do exactly as they’ve planned, and Tom goes to trial for murder. Tension is established by the uncertainty over whether the second half of their plan, to clear his name by showing how they planted the evidence, will be successful.

It occurs to the viewer that this scheme (and, likewise, any wrongful trial of an innocent person) leaves the real perpetrator running free. What Tom and Austin are doing isn’t exactly ethical, in this sense. But it sure does make for an interesting movie, especially when the curve ball ending is revealed!

Strong performances are given by Dana Andrews and the entire cast. There are no show-stopping moments of dramatic performance, but fine work is carried out by all, and the film has no trouble gripping the viewer’s attention.

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(Image via Great Old Movies)

Perhaps most interesting in terms of performance and character is Roy Thompson. He has a reputation for winning convictions, as noted in the beginning of the film, when he encounters Tom and Austin at a bar. He falls for the planted evidence hook, line, and sinker, and becomes unwilling to accept any other angle or interpretation of the events. He seems to represent the dogged determination of the justice system (and in many cases, the public) to lock up or kill the “bad guy,” regardless of the truth.

For me, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was a thought-provoking watch, but it’s also simply a very enjoyably far-fetched legal/crime drama. Recommended!

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2 thoughts on “FilmStruck Friday: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)

  1. Todd B says:

    I felt the same way as you: a little far-fetched at times, but still fun to watch. And I like Dana Andrews and Fritz Lang anyway, so the film had already scored a few bonus points with me before I watched it. Now I’ll go check out your review of the other noir film the two made that same year, ‘While the City Sleeps’.

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