Sunday, January 11, 2009

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)

Editor's note: This week's film noir is written by Ginger - a writer and classic film lover. Her blog - Asleep in NY - is lots of fun. This week she tackles Fritz Lang's last film noir.
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By Ginger Ingenue

Released in 1956, and directed by Fritz Lang -- a man all too familiar with film noir, and one of its earliest predecessors, German Expressionism. Lang delivers a disappointing entry, which proved to be his last American film.

Dana Andrews, another veteran of noir, stars as Tom Garrett, a novelist who recently got famous for his first publication. Now his editor wants him to churn out his second novel, but Tom's slightly distracted by his soon-to-be fiancé, Susan Spencer, as played by Joan Fontaine.

After watching an execution together, Tom and Susan's father, newspaper owner Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer) discuss the major flaw of Capital Punishment: the possibility of putting to death an innocent man.

Also coming into play, is the District Attorney, Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf), who Austin dislikes, and suspects of only being interested in advancing his career.

Now we've got Susan making her own advancements...Watching Joan Fontaine hit on Dana Andrews, and the two of them mugging down like a couple of teenagers is really disgusting. She's very bland, and prudish-looking in this film. Dana eventually join in with the sex-talk, and when Susan asks Tom what he'd like to do after dinner, Tom jovially states, “I know what I'd like to do!”

Ewww. So this is 1956? I'm sorry, but I'm slightly nostalgic for the coy and subtle dialogue of film noir in the 1940s. When everything was deliciously subtle; the innuendos were clever, and delivered with cattish-smiles, and side-long glances. Instead, we've got Fontaine and Andrews delivering embarrassing come-ons.

They’re making out in his apartment when the telephone rings. Tom looks incredibly uncomfortable, but for now, we don't know why.

Fast forward to the Spencer house, and we have Tom and Susan discussing marriage. Tom reveals that it was his publisher on the phone (or was it?) and that Tom desperately needs to start novel number two. He then tells Susan, I can't marry you now; I need to concentrate!

Susan gets mad and disappears. Tom and Austin are left alone, and they soon resume their discussion of capital punishment. Dawning upon them is a brilliant idea! To prove that an innocent man can be found guilty, Tom will frame himself for the murder of a local stripper -- a crime in which there is no apparent suspect -- and Austin will help him plant the evidence. Tom agrees to all this, thinking it would make for a good story, and happily puts off his novel and his marriage, in order to destine himself to the electric chair.

Despite proving himself to be an admirable character, what with his strong beliefs against Capital Punishment and the death of the innocent, I almost immediately suspected Austin Spencer of killing the stripper. Perhaps he saw Tom's need for writerly inspiration as a chance to frame his future son-in-law for the murder in which Austin committed. And of course when they attend the dead girl's former place of business, a burlesque club, Austin acts a bit suspicious while pointing out the girls to Tom.

Once inside the strip hall, we get a generous taste of a ditsy, 'full-figured' blonde. Of course we've already met this Marilyn-esque character during a scene in which Dolly Moore (Barbara Nichols) was questioned by police, along with her dressing-room-mate, Terry, and another girl from the club.

I actually like the strippers. They brighten up the movie, if nothing else. And Tom Garrett likes them too...one in particular; he 'accidentally' spills his drink on Dolly, and later shows up in her dressing room. He flashes a wad of cash at her, to which she squeaks, "Hey, you're all right!"

You damn right he is. He takes her out to classy joints, and gets their picture landed in the society pages.


Meanwhile, he and Austin have been working on their experiment: they bought Tom a gray coat, since the only thing known about the man who bumped off the stripper named Patty, is that he wore a gray coat and a brown hat, smoked a pipe, and drove a black modern car. Of course, Tom already drives a black modern car and wears a brown hat, so now all he needs is a gray coat (remember that...).

They also go to the place where Patty's body was discovered, and Tom throws the lighter in which Susan has recently gave him -- it's inscribed with their names -- into the brush nearby.

The planting of the lighter is when I first became disappointed with the film's logic. Now, when a body is discovered, police and special investigators, and a slew of other professionals, scour the whole area for clues, right? If a shiny cigarette lighter were present when the body was discovered, they probably would have found it. It wasn't there during the initial search, but it suddenly makes an appearance during the second search? Well heck, anybody could have dropped something up there after the body was discovered! I think it would have been considered dismissible evidence.

Susan's got something a little more incriminating: the newspaper photo of Dolly and Tom! Susan reads the photo’s caption, wanting to know why it's okay for Tom to procrastinate on his novel in order to wine and dine some 'dazzling blonde', but they have to postpone their own wedding because Susan's a distraction? No thank you. She tells Tom, You want a postponement? You've got one!

And luckily, Joan Fontaine walks out again; I grew incredibly tired of her melodramatics.

Tom visits Dolly at the strip club.

Dana makes for a nice 'classy guy who's slumming it'. Both Dolly and her friend Terry want a piece of his action. I can't say I blame them! But Terry isn't so interested in Tom once getting an eye load of his black modern car. She insists Dolly be more suspicious of her new beau, so Dolly immediately calls the police. They show up and tell her just to act normal, they'll follow her. And sure enough, later that night, when Tom takes Dolly for a ride, the police are lurking in the darkness behind them.

As soon as Tom turns off the engine, he tries to turn Dolly on. She's not interested. Too tired, she says. But Tom doesn't listen. He's hard up to convince her otherwise...and when she starts screaming, the cops appear and carry Tom in for questioning. Guess what: he's arrested for Patty’s murder, and soon put on trial.

All the pieces of evidence Tom planted are used against him.

The only new piece of evidence is that Tom withdrew three-thousand dollars a few days before Patty's murder. After the murder, he re-deposited all but two hundred of it. The reason it's used against him is that the dead girl had a large sum of money on her before she died, and wouldn't tell a fellow stripper how she got it.

Perhaps Tom gave it to her?

This was the first time such a thought entered my mind. I was still thinking perhaps Austin was guilty, and once Tom was safely stashed on death row, we'd see Austin Spencer laughing it up on the beach somewhere. But no: Austin Spencer didn't kill that girl. Upon realizing this, I enjoyed the first (and what proved to be the only!) scene of any dramatic suspense...Austin is getting ready to go to the courthouse, to hear the jury's verdict, and with him, he's taking the envelope filled with all the photos, receipts, and other such details of his and Tom's experiment, in order to clear Tom, knowing damn well the jury would read a verdict of guilt and a sentence of death.

Of course Austin Spencer never makes it to the courthouse. He dies in a fiery crash. Which also destroys the only proof of Tom's innocence.

Tom is found guilty, and put on death row. His lawyer, and Susan, and Susan's ex-boyfriend Bob (Arthur Franz), who works with the district attorney, all believe Tom's story and scramble for any possible way to convince the Governor to grant Tom a pardon.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when we find out, thanks to one of her former strip-club employers, Patty had changed her name from 'Emma', and was once involved with a drummer who liked to rough her up. One night, she ran off with all his dough, and the drummer swore he'd catch up with her, if it was the last thing he did.

How very film noir-ish! And now we have a suspect. Unless, of course, Tom and this drummer are actually the same person. Which could have been interesting, but no. Turns out, the drummer's long been dead.

So now Tom's gonna be executed. An innocent man on death row, just as they planned it! Suddenly a letter shows up at the district attorney's office. Bob and Susan are there, along with Roy Thompson: it's a letter addressed to him, from the late Austin Spencer.

Thanks to this letter, Tom's name has been cleared, and the Governor is on his way to grant the pardon! Susan is talking to Tom in the warden's office, when Tom accidentally drops a bomb that kills the entire film. Apparently Tom was married to the dead stripper Patty! Back when her name was still Emma, she tricked him into marriage (by pretending to be pregnant?), and then promised to go to Mexico and divorce him. Well, she never did, and once Tom was successful, she showed back up and Tom killed her.

Now at first, this plot-twist seems so completely tacked-on just for last-minute shock value, but if you remember the phone call Tom received while he and Susan were up in his apartment...I'm sure that was actually Patty on the phone, and not his editor, considering how Tom instantly looked uncomfortable and angry upon answering.

So Tom wanted to go along with the experiment, because once Austin Spencer cleared Tom's name by proving it was all fake, Tom would have been pardoned, and once you're pardoned for a crime, of course, you can never be convicted of it again. And he would have gotten away with it! If it weren't for his big mouth...

Now Susan knows Tom really is a murderer. At first she's all womanly about it, and isn't gonna say anything because, boo-hoo, she loves him so much, and crying on Bob's shoulder, what would Bob do if Susan were a murderer? Of course Bob has a more logical head on his shoulder (his own!), and tells Susan to do what's right. She calls and stops the Governor just seconds before he signs the pardon.

Tom Garrett is going to die.

I think they should have included that in the ending. It wouldn't have made up for the total disappointment of the film’s sudden change, but perhaps served as a nice consolation. They could have done it Cagney-style! But in reverse; not with Tom crying like a rat, but completely void of emotions, numb while walking to the chair, and reminiscing about the murder (where we could see it in flashback!). But no. Fritz Lang goes out on a gray note. There's absolutely nothing visually interesting in the ending, or in the entire film. And now the plot's ruined too!

There's so many things they could have done with this story, as written by Academy Award winning screenwriter, Douglas Morrow, but instead, it all falls flat and illogical. Remember Tom buying the gray coat? Well, if Tom was actually the murderer, he already owned a gray coat. Plus, and way more importantly, the cops would have known from the murder investigation if Patty had ever changed her name, and they would have known she was married to Tom, even if Tom had changed his name, too.

God, it's so implausible, it makes my head hurt!

What a waste of an interesting concept.

7 comments:

  1. Great job, Ginger-- you actually make the flick sound kinda interesting in a Mystery Science Theater sort of way, but I suspect reading your droll review might ultimately be more entertaining than trying to crack wise thru the film itself.

    "I can't marry you now; I need to concentrate!" That's too funny.

    Best--
    JH

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  2. This sounds incredibly contrived. I, too, dislike it when a plot hangs on the assumed gross incompetence of the police. Crime scene investigation may not have been as sophisticated back then, but missing a lighter? Anyway, it doesn't sounds as if this one will make anyone forget The Postman Always Rings Twice (the original version, that is).

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  3. John: Thank you! :)

    I consider it a great honor to be compared to Mystery Science Theater. ;)

    K: I know! And it's not just the lighter, but missing the name-changes, and the estranged marriage...it's just silly. :)

    ...

    And Steve: I thought of something yesterday! :)

    An interesting little point I missed: if Tom strangled Patty with her own stocking...why wasn't Patty's stocking on her own leg?!

    Ha...I bet Tom got one last good 'use' out of his old wife, before feeding her to the dirt, and going back to the boring Joan Fontaine. ;)

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  4. I had planned to rewatch this chestnut when TCM showed it on January 23 of next week...but they're interrupting it for a Ricardo Montalban tribute.

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  5. I think that you are engaged in rather tick-tacky stuff in your critique of the film. Sure there are some plot inconsistencies, but this is film noir, not a straight mystery. If you started ruling films out for plot issues there would be very few noirs that would get by unscathed. If you truly saw the twist coming then bully for you. I did not and subsequently got a jolt from the devlopment.

    I did enjoy the visual aspects of the film. Even with a stripped down budget Lang's visual imagery in interesting. The charcaters speak in a type of coded language where nothing is really as it seems, there are layers of subterfuge and only at the film's conclusion do we know what is true and what is false. It is always great to see Sydney Blackmur. I've been searching out his film ever since I saw Rosemary's baby for the first time. Joan Fontaine is sure a differant girl here than in Rebecca but this portrayal is similar to her role in "The Bigamist" from about the same time period.

    Beyond A reasonable Doubt is far from noir or Lang's best entry but it is stil;l richly satisfying

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  6. Just watched this on BBC Iplayer. I thought your review was pretty spot on. It seemed to waste such a terrific concept. Dana Andrews was more wooden than usual but Joan Fontaine wasnt that bad and I quite enjoyed their early flirtations. Anyway this is the first time I've come across this website and I think you've done a fine job. Cheerio!

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  7. iPlayer for me also, and I was convinced Austin Spencer was using Tom to cover his own ass, that Tom would get convicted and, still confident, waits for the evidence that will save him.... and waits, while in a cut scene Spencer is comforting Susan, a sinister smile on his face as he gives her a fatherly embrace... The twist, when it did come (and until Tom's guilt was revealed, I still thought Spencer had somehow faked his own death), was wackier still, hit me for six!

    What I liked about this one was its grim view of humanity. None of the participants are especially likeable and there's a bleak feeling that everyone is essentially out for themselves and their own motives. As for Joan Fontaine, there is a slight whiff of miscasting, as though they wanted a big name actress and she was available, but she's always watchable.

    Nice review, even if we ultimately disagree on the worth of the film.

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