Monday, May 4, 2015

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

TCM is running a night of death row-themed movies tonight, including Beyond a Reasonbale Doubt at 12:15 AM.

Dana Andrews stars as Tom Garrett, a writer who's moving up in the world. He's gotten himself engaged to Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine), who is the daughter of the influential newspaper publisher Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer). Mr. Spencer campaigns tirelessly against the death penalty, and has a particular interest in doing so right now since the local prosecutor recently obtained a murder conviction on circumstantial evidence.

To that end, Spencer has an audacious idea. There's been another murder that the cops have been completely unable to solve, so he wants Tom to help him solve the murder for everybody's benefit. Well, they're not really going to solve the murder; they're going to plant evidence that will lead to a murderer, with that murderer being Tom himself. Once they do that, they'll have Tom be arrested, put on trial, and convicted, and hopefully even sent to the gas chamber. Only once all that happens will Spencer produce their documentary proof that the evidence pointing to Tom's involvment in the murder has all been fabricated.

Now, as I wtore the paragraph above, I found myself thinking of one of the TCM "Word of Mouth" pieces that runs every time they're going to be showing the 1960s version of King of Kings. Screenwriter Philip Yordan says he was called by the producer to be a script doctor, and when he flew over to Spain where the movie was being filmed, he saw what passed for a script and said, "This is insane!" Indeed, Spencer's plan for his future son-in-law is nonsensical, and who in his right mind would want to engage in a plan like that? At least Susan is in her right mind. Either that, or she'd spill the beans, so Dad and Tom decide to keep the knowledge of what they're doing from her.

So far, so good. And then the time comes for Spencer to produce the evidence which will exonerate Tom. He gets it from his safe, and then... gets into a car accident, which kills him and in the resulting fire destroys all the evidence! You'd think that if the two men had planned their actions as carefully as they did, they would have made certain to have a second copy of the evidence available somewhere. How will Tom be saved? Do we really want him to be saved, for after all, faking all this evidence is rather criminal in and of itself?

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is one of those movies that has a really interesting premise, but in which the ultimate payoff isn't quite as good as you'd hope for. If the cops were good enough to solve murders, you'd think they'd be good enough to realize that all this evidence was faked. The plot is full of unbelievable twists, right up until the very end. And it often feels as though everybody is going through the motions. It's the sort of thing where, it it had been a B movie with a bunch of unknowns, we'd probably praise it for being a little-known gem. But it's got fairly big stars and a big director in Fritz Lang, who already did similar stuff before with Fury. The result is a movie that does remain interesting, but winds up slightly disappointing.

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