Fritz Lang’s last film in America was this bleak film about a journalist’s efforts to expose corruption in the justice system. Very little about this film is stylish and gone are the expressionist noir sensibilities of Scarlet Street or Secret Beyond the Door. Instead, Lang’s final two films for Hollywood, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and While the City Sleeps, are tawdry, lurid, bland, and utterly cynical. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is almost pulpy – before our eyes, Tom (Dana Andrews reuniting with Lang after While the City Sleeps) transforms from an upstanding, middle-class writer on the eve of his engagement to a rather stuffy, blonde debutant heiress into a bottom-feeding letch and murderer.
SPOILER ALERT. While Lang’s twist ending does feel preposterous, it makes more sense upon multiple viewings of the film. After Susan finds the evidence to exonerate Tom and grant his pardon, he accidentally reveals to her that he knew and thus murdered the dancer. A distraught Susan is unsure whether to go ahead with his pardon or not, but follows the advice of her lawyer ex-boyfriend: he is executed. The first time you watch Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, this ending comes as an absurd surprise. It’s impossible for me to find genuine fault with a Fritz Lang film, so I think this ending was created with three possibilities in mind. For starters, it could be a cruel joke perpetrated against stubborn, overly moral audiences by an angry Lang, who was shunted to the side by the studio system and McCarthyism. (In this case, Susan is a stand-in for the audience.)
A second, similar explanation is that Lang finally got revenge for all the years that Hollywood studios refused his intended ending during the script approval process, or made him cut and re-film them during production. Lang successfully does target the justice system (they enthusiastically convict an “innocent” man), but he also points a finger at the media and mob justice. Tom, as with most of Lang’s protagonists, first appears likable, but his corruptible, guilty core is revealed. Tom seems to be fundamentally changed by his brush with murder and the nightclub underworld. The revelation of his guilt begins to make sense, at least in a symbolic way. If you go back and watch the film again with this perspective, certain plot holes are more glaring, while others slide into place.