What kind of man would frame himself for murder?!
In Fritz Lang’s last American movie, there is a twist ending which to some viewers will be an unforgivable trick, or at least a fatally illogical story device. At heart the movie is a thought experiment made at a time when Lang was bored with the cookie cutter scripts he was being offered, and he worked up a desire to try an unusually shocking approach to an issue picture. The plot (and briskly short film, at 80 minutes) has writer Dana Andrews proposing to prove how wrong capital punishment is, by getting himself framed for an unsolved murder on planted circumstantial evidence, with the help of publisher and future father-in-law Sidney Blackmer. The two men plan to see the frame-up through to the end, then pull a rabbit out of a hat and show everyone just how badly the justice system can railroad an innocent man. Of course you immediately see all the things that could go wrong once a highly intelligent man sets himself wholeheartedly to skillfully arranging every clue so that it points to him, and entrusts the real exonerating evidence to only one person, who could, say, maybe get hit by a car, or something.
As if all that weren’t enough material for a full noir plot, there is yet another strange and momentous twist that makes the story’s outcome dependent upon the conscience and action of Andrews’ fiancé Joan Fontaine. Fritz Lang was a master who could have turned the great cast and provocative storyline into something excellent and shocking, and the film certainly is compelling, but it seems to have placed so much focus on the morality of the death penalty that the characterization suffers in service to the machinations of the plot, and Lang wasn’t at all happy with the final product. As Sam Goldwyn once said, “if you want to send a message, call Western Union” and this can serve as proof of that maxim. Lang may have ended up hating it, but it’s not a bad film by any means, a worthwhile view for any fans of the director, of Andrews and noir.
This review was previously published in THE DARK PAGES, newsletter for film noir fans.
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