Plot: What’s it about?
Warner Bros Archive Collection continued its eclectic mix of titles this week by releasing two Fritz Lang films on Blu-ray to the delight of film collectors. Fritz Lang is probably best known for his films M and Metropolis, which were groundbreaking at the time, but is probably best lived for his film noir The Big Heat. Warner’s release of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and While The City Sleeps both find Fritz Lang finishing up his contract with RKO Pictures with two films back to back in 1956. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was his last for RKO, and the first of the two that I sat down and watched.
The film begins with a man in a prison cell being taken on the walk to the electric chair. As they flip the switch and execute him, an older gentleman (Sidney Blackmer) is shown sitting next to a middle aged gentleman (Dana Andrews.) It is obvious that the execution affects the older man. When the two gentlemen sit in a restaurant, it is revealed that the older gentleman is a newspaper editor named Austin Spencer and the younger gentleman is a famous author named Tom Garrett. Tom has plans to marry Austin’s daughter, Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine.) As they sit there talking about the execution, it becomes obvious that Austin disapproves of capital punishment. He also disapproves of the district attorney Roy Thompson who seems to be paving his way to the governor’s mansion on the dead bodies of the men he helps convict. Austin believes that if an innocent man planted enough evidence in an unsolved murder, he would be convicted of the crime and sentenced to death despite his innocence. Seeking an experience to draw upon for his next book, Tom agrees to put his life in danger to execute the plan. They begin planting condemning evidence and documenting through photographs with dates each step they take.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is not Fritz Lang’s best work, but it is solid short entertainment. The plot itself starts out fairly interesting, but as the plot became clear I was able to predict what would happen and was not surprised that I predicted numerous steps correctly. This is by no means a huge knock on the film, but more of an admission that the film is only average.
Hidden in the average plot is a more compelling aspect. This film seems to take a stand against capital punishment which was a fairly controversial stance then and still remains controversial. Unfortunately, there is a very tacked on finale that unwinds some of this leg work that I felt seemed out of step with the rest of the film. I felt curious about the original script after finishing the film, because it seemed like an opportunity was lost to make a stand on an issue.
The truth of the matter is that fans of this time period and this director will probably purchase this film no matter what I say here, because it is hard to pass up Fritz Lang on Blu-Ray. I am very appreciative of Warner for bringing more his work to the format, and if you are a big fan you should probably purchase a copy and encourage others to do so. That way we may see even more Fritz Lang in high definition. I should also point out that this film was remade in 2009 with anemic results critically, so the plot itself couldn’t save the film under the helm of another director.
More casual viewers will probably find the film so slight that it may not be worth adding to their collection.
Video: How’s it look?
Warner Bros. did a great job on the transfer of the film using an MPEG 4 AVC codec of a new 2K restoration in Black and White. Warner Archive have a fantastic track record for their transfers, and this one is on par with everything else they have done. That said, this film is not the most visually compelling film. Although Lang influenced the Noir generation with his early masterpiece M, this film looks fast and furiously shot in terms of the shots, cinematography, and production design. The film retains a fine level of grain and fine detail is very good. Fans will be very pleased.
Audio: How’s it sound?
A DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 was provided for this Blu-ray release. Dialogue is clear, hiss is nonexistent, and there are no dropouts to mention. The score by Hershel Burke Gilbert is effective but not particularly memorable. Good stuff overall.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Theatrical Trailer
The Bottom Line
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is pretty formulaic and unsurprising. It is also pretty enjoyable if you are a fan of these types of films. Out of the two films that Warner just released, I would recommend While The City Sleeps over this film, but don’t let that dissuade you from checking this one out. There are some good elements that are worth investigating such as the film’s subversive stance on capital punishment that is still a controversial topic today. Warner have not provided much in the way of supplements, but both the audio and visual transfers are excellent.