The factories that Hollywood studios became in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties — a phenomenon regarded today with mixed feeling — ground out films designed to “entertain.” Little did they know.
Take RKO — perhaps no studio generated out more modestly interesting titles intended to be strictly crowd pleasers but which turned out to be classics or at least very entertaining pictures. (RKO is the mothership, after all, of Citizen Kane and Val Lewton.)
We have a place in our hardhearted hearts for this once benighted but eventually doomed studio that generated in 1956 today’s seemingly innocuous bottom-of-the-biller.
Beyond A Reasonable Doubt is perhaps better remembered by cineastes today for being the last of some two dozen Hollywood films directed by the Austria-born Fritz Lang, whose silent films in Germany in the Twenties are considered masterpieces. His M in 1931 made a child killer played by Peter Lorre one of the whackiest and most complicated villains in cinema history. It also made Lorre an international star.
Lang’s nearly three decades in Hollywood included many battles with studio brass — Lang (above) could give it pretty well. But is also meant that he was overlooked when opportunities arose to direct big-budget A list features. That’s where Beyond A Reasonable Doubt comes in.
The picture was made on a low budget, with poor production values and, on the surface, not strikingly directed, according to Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward.
Nevertheless, the film has considerable impact, due not so much to visual style, as to the narrative structure and mood and to the expertly devised plot (screenplay by Douglas Morrow).
The movie stars Dana Andrews as a successful first-time novelist who out of professional curiosity gets caught up in a scheme to have himself convicted of a murder he did not commit in order to demonstrate the fickle cruelties of the death penalty. Joan Fontaine is on hand as his high-toned, expensive fiance, while Sidney Blackmer plays her father, the newspaper publisher who concocts the whole scheme.
A strong supporting cast includes Philip Bourneuf as an ambitious DA, Arthur Franz as a detective carrying a torch for Fontaine’s character, the ever reliable Edward Binns as the chief investigator, Shepperd Strudwick as a defense attorney and Barbara Nichols as a loudspoken stripper.
The plot is intriguing, the requisite courtroom scenes are crisp, pointed and well handled and there’s a trick ending. Andrews is suitably wooden faced and impassive, while Fontaine, while solid in the picture, seemed dismissive about her part.
She later wrote that in 1955 and 1956 my career continued with no particular distinction. I made ‘Serenade’ with Mario Lanza and Vincent Price for Warner Brothers (and) Beyond a Reasonable Doubt , with Dana Andrews, with Fritz Lang directing. No further comment.
In all, by no means a classic movie but an exceedingly entertaining one. See it.