Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt - Notes

I was absent from the film noir program on February 11. It turns out my son had a birthday that day, and 6-year-olds are notoriously stubborn about postponing such things. In my absence two students of this year's L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation class took the reins for me and wrote program notes for the Joan Fontaine double feature screened that day. Mason Rader, a visual artist from New York City, is first up with his notes on BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT:

Shortly before leaving Nazi Germany for America, Fritz Lang directed what would become a prototype for all Hollywood film noirs, M of 1931. M’s plot centered around a dark anti-hero, child-murderer Hans Beckhert. Its menacing urban setting of skewed perspectives and chiaroscuro light and shade would become a signature of American film noir. The look of the film noir genre was largely derived the aesthetics of German Expressionist filmmaking of the 1920s. Lang, and other ex-patriot German directors and cinematographers, enriched Hollywood with their imported style of filmmaking. Lang went on to make many classic noirs, such as Ministry of Fear (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Heat (1953) and Human Desire (1954). Beyond a Reasonable Doubt would turn out to be Lang’s last American film and his last noir. The classic film noir touches of oblique camera angles and ominous shadows are absent. The film’s utilitarian settings are bathed in fluorescent light. Evil does not lurk in the shadows. It is invisible in plain sight.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt represents a crystallization of Lang’s minimalist style stripped down to its essentials. The characters are driven through the film narrative in sets without extraneous props or scenery. The result is a film seemingly without style. The director’s production notes reveal Lang’s approach to cinematic storytelling. On a page he sketches two columns with the headings, “What the Audience Sees and Knows” and “What Happens But the Audience Doesn’t Know.” Characters are driven along a trajectory by an unseen hand. Is it the hand of fate’s or Fritz Lang’s? Jacques Rivette, future French New Wave director, wrote in his 1957 Cahiers du cinema review of Beyond A Reasonable Doubt “No concession is made here to the everyday... We are plunged into a world of necessity, all the more apparent in that it coexists so harmoniously with the arbitrariness of the premises” (48). In Beyond, fate can take the form of a speeding truck or a femme fatale whose grasp reaches beyond the grave.

The lead characters exude an aura of bland inscrutability. Dana Andrews plays a writer and social climber named Tom Garrett who is engaged to socialite Susan Spencer played by Joan Fontaine. Sydney Blackmer is cast as a newspaper publisher and father to the socialite. Philip Bourneuf plays the city District Attorney. In the aim of cleaning up society, the D.A. has built his political career on the bodies of executed criminals. Some of the executed may have been innocent of the crimes they were indicted for. The city newspaper publisher plans to expose that fact. He enlists Tom Garrett to plant false evidence that points to himself as the perpetrator in an unsolved murder case. In the process of uncovering the dirt behind the D.A.’s criminal cleanup, all the characters will get their hands dirty.

Lang’s dark preoccupation with fate, apparent in a number of his films can be traced to events in his personal life. In 1920, Lang’s first wife was discovered dead in a bathtub with a bullet hole between her breasts. Lang’s revolver was by her side. Minutes earlier she had discovered Lang making love to screenwriter Thea von Harbou in the Lang living room. As is the case in Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, there were “no eyewitnesses, no direct testimony…only circumstantial evidence” with regard to the true circumstances of her death. Lang and Harbou reported it as a suicide. Others had their doubts. Before taking a bath, Mrs. Lang reportedly telephoned a friend and made plans to meet with her. There was no police investigation into the matter. Von Harbou became Lang’s second wife and his greatest collaborator, writing screenplays for all his German films, including M in 1931. She did not immigrate to America with the director. Instead she became a member of the Nazi party and continued to write screenplays throughout the war.

Ultimately none of the characters left alive at the end of Beyond are completely innocent. Interviewed about the film years later, Lang was asked, “Which is the most despicable character?” (Eisner 360). Lang found the guilt of the murderer comparable to the guilt of those who would profit professionally, financially or romantically from his capture and execution. Concluding his commentary on moral relativism, perhaps with a measure of self-reflection, Lang quoted Bertold Brecht, “Man is not good. Man is evil.”(Eisner 359).

Mason also delivered a personal introduction to the film. Here are his notes from that talk:

Writing about Beyond a Reasonable Doubt in his book “The Films of My Life”, French Film Critic and Film Director Francois Trufaut wrote, “The critics were outraged by the plot, but it shouldn’t have been surprising coming from a man the world had confirmed as a rebel. In Beyond a Reasonable Doubt his rebellion turned to disgust.”

Lang escaped Nazism in the 30s only to end up in an America gripped in communist witch-hunts in the 50s. Lang was at the end of his rope when this film was made. His budgets were getting smaller and he wasn’t getting any respect. This would be Lang’s last film in America. His Hollywood films were just being rediscovered and appreciated by French new wave critics as he was leaving Hollywood. Lang had been an A level director in Germany producing lavish films in the 1920s. After 20 years in Hollywood he was still a B-director of westerns, war pictures and crime films…what we call now Film Noir. In his career in Hollywood he had made some great ones: The Woman in the Window, Ministry of Fear, Scarlet Street, Human Desire, The Blue Gardenia and The Big Heat.

Film noirs were originally low budget B-films. Dark and shadow disguised simple sets. Fritz Lang’s own German film M of 1931 was a proto-noir. German Expressionist cinematography of the 1920s was an inspiration for the noir look. This film would be one of the last noirs. This film has none of the look of classic noir. It is brightly lit. Not a shadow to be seen. The low budget film had now a T.V. aesthetic: clarity for that little screen.

Truffaut’s statement regarding Lang and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: “rebellion turned to disgust” might refer to how Lang starts with a group of unlikable characters and then proceeds through the plot to send each off to unexpected ends. Lang’s version of Fate has a fickle finger. Fritz Lang from his earliest films was concerned with Fate, love, death, guilt and its consequences. His first big film success was Destiny in 1921. An expressionistic and symbolic story: Death grants a woman three chances to save her lover, if love can triumph over death.

Destiny came the year after Fritz Lang’s first wife died in mysterious circumstances. Destiny’s screenwriter was Thea Von Harbou. She would be Lang’s greatest collaborator and greatest love. She was present at the death of Lang’s first wife Lisa Rosenthal. Lang’s wife discovered Fritz and Thea Von Harbou making love in the Lang living room one afternoon in 1920. After a shot they discovered her in nude in the tub with a bullet between the breasts. Fritz Lang’s own revolver was lying at her side. Lang & Harbou were initially charged with not reporting the incident quickly enough. Lang & Harbou being the only witnesses to the incident. Lang being an important film director, under the very powerful producer Erich Pommer at Germany’s UFA Film Studios…. the entire incident was expunged from the police records. There is no record of an inquest or even a Lisa Rosenthal Death Certificate. Lang had her body buried even before her family could make it from out of town to view the body. Questions later arose: It turned out Lisa Rosenthal called a friend, making plans to meet… after discovering Lang & Harbou, and before entering the bathroom. The overwhelming majority of gun death suicides are to the head or in the mouth. It turns out it is very rare for someone to commit suicide by shooting themselves in the chest. The position of the arm is very awkward.

Lang never spoke of his first wife in any interview. Any discussion of love of marriage in his life began with Thea Von Harbou, his second wife. Lang effectively erased Lisa Rosenthal from history. Only in the last decade has her story been unearthed and the mystery brought to light. Thea Von Harbou went on to be screenwriter to all of Lang’s great German Films from Dr. Mabuse to Metropolis to M… She also went on to become a Nazi. Fritz Lang’s first wife was Jewish, His mother born Jewish, converted to Catholicism. That was enough to make Fritz Lang a little Jewish in the eyes of the Nazi Regime that came to power in 1933. Lang made the decision to quickly leave Germany and Harbou.

Gossip regarding his first wife followed Lang until he left Harbou and Germany. He was able to make a fresh start in America. Harbou continued to be a successful screenwriter in Germany throughout the Nazi period. She was imprisoned for a year after the war for her Nazi past. In America Fritz Lang films returned again and again to stories of misguided love obsessions that ruin lives and lead to tragedy and murder. That could be a description of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. It also could be Fritz Lang’s own story with Thea Von Harbou as his femme fatal and Lisa Rosenthal as his dark secret.

Postscript:

After completing Beyond a Reasonable Doubt Lang left America and returned to Germany to make to remake a two part epic fantasy film The Tiger of Bengal & The Indian Tomb: big budget and Technicolor. He was originally slated to direct them in Germany in 1920. The screenwriter was Thea Von Harbou and it was there Lang first fell in love with her.

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