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Film / Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

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Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is a 1956 film directed by Fritz Lang, starring Dana Andrews and Joan Fontaine.

Andrews is Tom Garrett, a former newspaperman turned author engaged to Susan Spencer (Fontaine), the daughter of his old boss, newspaper publisher Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer). Austin Spencer is an anti-death penalty activist who at the beginning of the movie has taken Tom to see an execution. Austin springs an idea on Tom: expose the death penalty for an injustice by planting circumstantial evidence suggesting someone is guilty, then reveal the truth after the innocent man is convicted and sentenced to death. The front-page articles about the murder of a local stripper named Patty Gray provide the opportunity Tom and Austin are looking for, and Tom volunteers to set himself up. Tom is convicted as planned, but that's all right, as Austin is ready to clear his name... until The Plot Reaper intervenes, and Tom is facing the death penalty for real.


This nasty little Film Noir was the last film Fritz Lang made in Hollywood. Lang, tired of the studios, left afterwards for his homeland of Germany, having fled Those Wacky Nazis over 20 years before. See the critically-panned Kevin Spacey movie The Life of David Gale for another film with a similar premise. Peter Hyams made a remake in 2009.


  • Answer Cut: Austin says of the Patty Gray case "If they haven't gotten a suspect we'll give them one", then we cut to the detective saying "We've got 50 suspects."
  • Authentication by Newspaper: When planting the lighter at the scene where Gray's body was found, Tom holds up a newspaper and Austin snaps a photo, to prove he dropped it at a later date.
  • Burlesque: Patty the murder victim was a burlesque dancer. As part of the plan, Tom starts dating Dolly, a voluptuous dancer at the same burlesque club.
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  • Contrived Coincidence: The unsolved murder that Austin Spencer randomly selects for his scheme just happens to be the one that Tom actually committed.
  • Dead Man Writing: Just in the nick of time, the trustee that Austin gave control of his newspaper finds an in-case-of-my-death letter in which Austin explains the scheme.
  • Door-Closes Ending: Susan calls the governor as the governor, with pen in hand, is about to sign Tom's pardon. After she tells him the truth, the governor tells the bailiff to lead Tom back to his cell. The last shot is the door to the hallway closing as Tom is taken away.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: Which is a bad thing for both Austin and Tom. Bad for Austin because he dies in a fireball after his car is hit by a truck, and bad for Tom because Austin had all the exculpatory photos and documents in his car, where they are burned to a crisp.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: Tom, who along with Austin goes to great trouble to frame himself—wiping prints from his car, dropping the lighter at the scene, staging a stocking as a purported murder weapon—really did kill Patty Gray, but for a different reason than anyone might have guessed.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar:
    • Tom says he "had to" marry Patty, implying it's because she claimed to be pregnant, something a film wouldn't openly say then without violating Section II of the Hays Code.
    • Susan also makes a just barely veiled request for sex.
      Susan: But I feel like dancing now.
      Tom: All right. Where?
      Susan: I've never seen your apartment.
  • Gold Digger: Dolly is a pretty grubby one, describing Tom as "the best score I've made in a long time."
  • Gone Horribly Right: Tom's entire plan to frame himself for murder...only to do such a good job that when the key evidence to free him is lost, he faces the death penalty.
  • Hero Insurance: Well, fine, Tom might have gotten off for the murder, but surely after a long and drawn-out process, not via an instant pardon. He also could have been charged with fabricating evidence.
  • Idiot Ball:
    • Or maybe Plot Hole...but since Tom turned out to be guilty after all, why in the name of all that's holy did he agree to this scheme in the first place? Why deliberately implicate yourself in a murder that you actually committed and have gotten away with? Apparently he thought nobody in their right mind would suspect he did do it after getting exonerated, but that backfired horribly.
    • This also occurs with Tom's admission to Susan. As Tom was a former newspaperman, and he was trying to get himself framed, he could have easily said he did research into Patty's real identity to make the frameup more convincing.
    • The best explanation would be that he was engaging in a highly complicated, risky, and potentially idiotic Double Jeopardy scheme.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: Tom and Susan are deliriously happy over Tom's exculpation and imminent pardon, when Tom makes the mistake of wondering who really killed "Emma". Susan picks up on this immediately, noting that this detail, that Patty's real name was Emma Blucher, was never revealed publicly. Tom then admits that Emma Blucher was his wife, and he really did kill her, in order to free himself to marry Susan.
  • The Killer in Me: Turns out Tom was guilty all along.
  • Of Corsets Sexy: Lots of fanservice with Dolly and the other strippers at the burlesque club in their corsets.
  • Ominous Legal Phrase Title: It's "beyond a reasonable doubt" that Tom is guilty...except that he and his friend faked all the evidence!
  • Oops! I Forgot I Was Married: Tom's reason for murdering Emma Blucher. Emma never did file those divorce papers, and she looked Tom up after he hit it big as an author. See I Never Said It Was Poison above.
  • Posthumous Character: Patty Gray, dead at the start of the movie and not even seen in flashback, but whose life, back story, and true identity of Emma Blucher is eventually exposed.
  • Title Drop: The Stock Legal Phrase "beyond a reasonable doubt" is dropped by the prosecutor when discussing both the first case and Tom's case.
  • Twist Ending: Tom really did kill Patty. See I Never Said It Was Poison above.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Susan outs Tom's guilt to the governor near the very end. Tom walks to his death knowing that Susan betrayed him.
  • Wrongful Accusation Insurance: After the exculpatory letter is discovered, the governor agrees to issue a pardon to let Tom out. Apparently the state has no interest in prosecuting any of the crimes Tom committed as part of his harebrained scheme, like obstruction of justice, falsifying evidence, or interfering with a police investigation.
  • Zip Me Up: One of the other strippers tries this with Tom, much to Dolly's irritation.