Tuesday, February 9, 2010

DVD MIA #2: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

By decree of the boss man, movies/DVDs only count towards the great 2010 viewing tally contest if Gen X carries the film for rental. For my extracurricular viewing, I've created DVD MIA, a series covering movies not available on DVD in North America.

US, 1956. Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Dana Andrews, Joan Fontaine, Sidney Blackmer.

Fritz Lang's last American film, and it's a solid one. Thriller fans may find it routine, in spite of a satisfying twist that maybe isn't the one most viewers will expect. Lang's concern here isn't with crafting suspense but with exploring degrees of culpability among his characters. Proof positive of the film's lack of suspense movie oomph is that the recent Michael Douglas remake seems to have screwed around the plot to the point where it barely resembles the original's.

One thing the two have in common is the central gimmick - a writer of integrity (here it's Dana Andrews) sets up an elaborate plot to frame himself for a murder in order to prove a point. He's given the idea by newspaper publisher Sidney Blackmer, whose daughter (Joan Fontaine) is his fiancee. Blackmer fiercely attacks capital punishment in the pages of his daily, with frequent verbal blows directed at the pro-C.P. district attorney. By planting evidence and secretly, scupulously documenting Andrews' actual innocence, the pair hope to get Andrews sent to death row, to be saved at the last moment by the exculpatory documentation. I'll bet you've never seen a movie before if you haven't already guessed that something is going to throw a wrench into their plan, and it wasn't the wrench I was expecting.

Lang is clearly happy as a pig in filth with how many avenues this scenario opens up to explore his obsession with human guilt. Blackmer and Andrews may have noble motives in their plan, but is it noble to hijack - maybe permanently - the investigation of a lonely stripper's murder in order to make their point? What kind of sexist, patriarchal monsters do they have to be to mess so much with the emotions of Fontaine, the woman they have in common? How about the police detective who once romanced Fontaine, what are his motives for steering the case in the directions he does, to the point of contradicting himself in two back-to-back sentences in the climactic scenes? And what of the murder victim, never spoken of positively by a single witness, in contrast to the relatively noble motives of one particular lawbreaker? Not to mention all of the other gray areas I won't bring up so that I don't ruin the plot.

The film is very low budget, and looks it, so one will often search in vain for the striking Lang visuals established from the very beginning of his career. For fans of ambiguity and thought in mainstream genre cinema, however, there's plenty to chew on here.

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