When we think of the great Hollywood films, we probably think of sensuality, the way they manipulate our emotions through suspense, fear, laughter, sensation, melodrama. BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT might seem to be the antithesis of this kind of film - its cold, formal, mathematical, forbidding distance. It is as brutally insensitive to audience weaknesses as Tom Garrett is to his fiancee - like Lang, he creates a plot to prove something; his lack of humanity, though, counteracts the supposed humanitarianism of his cause, even before we discover his real motives.
DOUBT is a cruel movie, which makes its 'implausibility' and 'unrealism' (sic?) part of its theme. Most Hollywood films offer us a hero, no matter how flawed, with whom an audience can identify, with whom they can experience the ups and downs, joys and pains, dangers and relief; he will generally have some redeeming feature, eg Norman Bates' gentleness, Roger Thornhill's charm. Lang refuses us such luxury. Tom is a deeply unpleasant man from the start. There are two realms in the film, that of life, a passive realm, of women, who depend on the time and money of men, who must prostitute themselves for status (both Susan and the strippers); this is a sensual world of the body.
Then there is the male realm, icy, intellectual, where plans are hatched, where gods tamper with life and law, use them as playthings, ideas. Tom's dilemma is that he belongs to both. Initially, we are led to suspect that Tom's decision to experiment is a chance to slum, to visit the seedy dives prohibited by his airless upper-middle-class milieu before his marriage, an example of double standards in a male-dominated society.
But even at an early stage, the ease with which he assumes his role, his familiarity with the environment, the codes, the language, make one suspicious. So then we query Austin's interest, his chilling suggestion to use a man as a guinea-pig to test the unfairness of capital punishment. He is the classic liberal in the abstract, the sort of man who would justify the gulags as necessary for the greater good. When Tom fobs Susan off with an affirmation of physical desire, we notice Austin's strange look, and wonder if he is trying to set Tom up, wary of his social ambitions or sexual predatoriness (where is Mrs. Spencer)?
Tom is a classic noir (and even Victorian) split personality. He navigates two environments, two histories, two (even three) women. Either way, he has committed two crimes, either killing the girl, or planting evidence, obstructing the course of justice. This is a bleak Hollywood instance of the 'hero' being punished, killed, revealed not to be a hero. So who is? Hardly Susan, a mere nuisance in the men's big schemes - her taking over power, by running the paper, and trying to inject emotion into the chilly plot by sentimental appeal dries up like a tear in the desert. Her ex-lover, the dull, dutiful policeman, is in the ironic position of trying to save a murderer from death row, so the latter can marry the woman he loves (the sordid sexual engine of this plot motor is unmistakable and unpleasant).
DOUBT has been praised for its geometric austerity, its theorem-like drive. Every shot is dominated by lines, rectangles, and especially triangles, from the sets and camera movements to the placing of characters. But what does the theorem demonstrate? The easy manipulation of American justice (Tom is only foiled by a stupid slip)? The inability of anything, law, art etc. to explain the randomness of life? In its extreme formalism, its spare mise-en-scene, its profusion of screens in different scenes (eg the restaurant and the courtroom) makes the film feel Oriental, and, like AI NO CORRIDA, there is an analysis of surveillance in the public sphere, from the cameras recoding the trial to the DA's trampling the spirit of the law for political gain. There are two extraordinary sequences in this chilling film - the opening execution, a mixture of funeral march and dream; and the pan in the jail over the prisoners that must have been in Godard's head when he made WEEK END.
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