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Vindication of an Heiress: Surprise revelation, alienation effect, and screen persona in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt


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By Robert K. Lightning.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) was Fritz Lang’s final U.S. film.[1] In several obvious ways it can be read as a companion piece to the film that preceded it, While the City Sleeps. Both films star Dana Andrews as a reporter-turned-novelist. Both narratives also involve a sensational crime that triggers the operations of several urban institutions. The differences between the two films can be expressed by saying that City can be easily read as a treatise on the postwar American city as revealed by a panoramic view of the inner workings of its institutions (primarily the police and print and broadcast journalism) as well as a cross section of representative individuals (enacted by a large ‘all-star’ cast). Beyond is more singularly concerned with gender construction and the heterosexual couple, using the same social institutions opportunistically in relation to these primary concerns.

Of course City is also concerned with gender and heterosexual relations: in their respective bids for power each of the film’s various newsmen, in every case, uses a woman opportunistically. (In fact the successive rights to the sexual favors of the film’s sole newswoman come to symbolize the inheritance of institutionalized male authority and the continuing exploitation of women in those institutions). Obviously the differences are more a matter of textual emphasis (and aesthetic choice) than clear-cut differentiation. Each film’s presentation of the newspaper world, in fact, offers a further clarification of the issue. We might say that while in both films the newspaper business can be read as symbolizing a deeply entrenched patriarchal power, the earlier film is concerned with giving the viewer a fairly detailed exposé of its operations. In other words, Lang here (in line with the traditions of realist art) is concerned with establishing for the viewer its credible identity as an institution. Beyond, on the other hand, concerned with the newspaper business primarily as symbol, presents it far more perfunctorily.

bardAs a way further into the film (and a further opportunity to examine its aesthetic) we can begin with its use of a specific narrative device, the surprise revelation. (Here of Tom/Dana Andrews’ guilt). We might begin with what the revelation achieves. In an essay on Beyond, Douglas Pye (who discusses the strategy as “suppressive narrative”) notes the viewer is encouraged “to rescan the early parts of the film in light of the revelation in order to establish what is at stake in the use of such extreme narrative suppression” (Pye 1993: 102). Applying Pye’s reasoning to Hitchcock’s more famous deployment of the same narrative strategy in Stage Fright (1950) is informative. If the last-minute revelation in Stage Fright that accused killer Jonathan/Richard Todd is, in fact, guilty of murder leads the viewer to scrutinize prior narrative events more closely, the act of rereading is more revealing of the motivations of the film’s heroine Eve/Jane Wyman than those of the killer, specifically her willingness to accept both Jonathan’s innocence and her rival Charlotte Inwood/Marlene Dietrich’s guilt so readily. In retrospect, the psychological implications of Eve’s behavior seem obvious, with Eve exorcizing latent Oedipal drives with the older woman functioning as surrogate mother. As the child’s traversal of the ‘normal’ Oedipus complex theoretically culminates in identification with the same-sex parent, the narrative implications of Eve’s Oedipal drives seem confirmed late in the film when Eve, having transferred her affections to Smith/Michael Wilding, describes her feelings of love as like being on a “great golden cloud”, imaginatively recreating in her description an image from Charlotte’s stage routine where she made a provocative appearance (singing “The Laziest Gal in Town”) before a backdrop of clouds.

I should say here that while my reading of Beyond corresponds in many respects to Pye’s we differ in our interpretations of the significance of surprise/suppression in the film. Pye makes a partially persuasive argument that the strategy dramatizes the issues of proof and persuasion “in terms of the processes of perception, selection, interpretation and presentation and makes these processes involve the spectator […] as much as the characters” (Pye 1993: 102). Pye makes similar claims for Lang’s The Blue Gardenia and, while granting that both films realize the characteristic Langian play with viewer perception, I would argue that Pye’s interpretation holds better for Gardenia, where Lang makes available evidence – the Liebestod recording for example – that the perceptive viewer might use to question the evidence against the heroine and hence the reliability of perception. However, as I will argue momentarily, I view the significance of the surprise revelation as primarily aesthetic rather than thematic.

One does not have to be a proponent of the argument that the classical Hollywood cinema induces a state of critical inertia in the viewer to allow that Hollywood films (and realist art in general) can be appreciated on a variety of levels, ostensibly at the exclusion of other levels. The Hitchcock of Stage Fright and the Lang of Beyond prompt the unaware viewer to engage (as Pye notes) in a process of rereading but it would be a mistake to rescan the films in search of conclusive evidence of the guilt of the killer of either film: the most such an exercise might uncover is supportive data (as in The Blue Gardenia) or, more likely, the absence of any data that conclusively contradicts the surprise revelation.

Beyond-a-reasonable-doubtThe strategy of surprise is largely dependent on the director’s adherence to other conventions for its success. In Beyond these include the viewer’s conventional response to the male lead and ostensibly virtuous hero which here colludes with casting, Andrews’ persona being that of “someone who would be believable as the unwitting victim of circumstances” (as Austin Spencer describes Tom): Andrews had already played an everyman victim-hero of postwar political and class realignment in The Best Years of Our Lives as well as victims (like Tom Garrett) of miscarriages of justice in The Ox-Bow Incident and The Purple Heart. In Stage Fright Hitchcock exploits the convention of the flashback, the veracity of its visual component having remained, until then, largely sacrosanct. Both directors remind the viewer very dramatically that narratives are assemblages, constructed and devised according to the governing conventions of a given genre but, as assemblages, an artist is free to follow the conventional path or not. Through the abrupt upsetting of his/her expectations the viewer is encouraged to disregard the logic of narrative conventions and engage instead with the logic of the film’s thematic, a decidedly modernist maneuver.

Masculine calculation and the façade of disinterest

As an assemblage, Lang of course was free to make any of his characters the guilty party and in fact he provides several red herrings that further bolster the surprise strategy. (As Pye notes, in the scene were Tom is booked for murder, district attorney Thompson/Phillip Bourneuf sports a coat and hat similar to that of the murder suspect. He is also accompanied by Arthur Franz, the actor who portrayed the serial killer in Dmytryk’s The Sniper). To interpret the thematic significance of the surprise ending it is fruitful to begin with what the murder and the attendant plot to implicate Tom are able to achieve for him: the elimination of two threatening women, both Patty Grey and his fiancée Susan Spencer/Joan Fontaine. Deborah Thomas has noted Tom’s ambivalence toward Susan (Thomas 1993: 60) going so far as to suggest that the murder of Patty Grey (which follows very closely his engagement to Susan) is a substitute for a secret desire to eliminate Susan, an argument made more credible if we recall that in Lang’s previous film Andrews becomes engaged and immediately places his fiancée in a life-threatening situation. (If Andrews played victims he also played victimizers: a gangster in Ball of Fire, a tortured victimizer in Where the Sidewalk Ends and both victim and victimizer in The Fallen Angel). As with the Andrews hero’s exploitive behavior in While the City Sleeps, Tom’s deceptive behavior provokes his fiancée to dissolve their engagement.

Tom’s ambivalence toward Susan is suggested already in their early scenes together. The recording of the title song that we hear playing in Tom’s apartment (following the love scene that Lang abstains from showing the viewer) clearly is meant to refer to the nature of Tom’s desire: “It all began the day I looked at you, you were just like the girl I dreamed about.” For a man of Tom’s (presumably) subordinate class background Susan, the attractive daughter of a prominent newspaper publisher (in fact, the boss’s daughter) is the appropriately objectified feminine ideal. Of course her wealth and social position are precisely the same features that undermine his patriarchal position as dominant heterosexual male and they are thus equally threatening to Tom, so much so that he fails to develop the relationship along the conventional path, his reluctance becoming so apparent to Susan that she usurps the traditional male prerogative and takes the expected sexual initiative.

Beyond-a-Reasonable-Doubt-5727_3His ambivalence is further suggested by the subterfuge surrounding Spencer’s plot to expose the imperfection of the justice system, specifically its deployment of capital punishment. Tom not only readily agrees to keep Susan in the dark about the plot to falsely implicate himself for the murder of Patty, he subsequently fails to put up a believable front of innocence for her: postponing their engagement supposedly to work on his new book, he fails not only to provide evidence of new work but fails to provide a credible explanation for having been seen socializing with another woman. (Given Tom’s growing fame and Susan’s social position this episode appears as an item in a gossip column which snidely singles out Susan for mention). The inferred link between the blackmailing lower-class woman and the assertive upper-class woman is additionally suggested when Tom plants the lighter given him by Susan at the site where he had discarded Patty’s body. Throughout the film, the lighter accumulates symbolic significance as expressive of Susan’s comparative social power: given Tom by Susan after the finalization of their engagement, it functions not only as an engagement present but (as the only material evidence of their commitment) it additionally replaces the traditional male token of the ring and thus further evidences Susan’s usurpation of the traditional male position. It is also associated with Susan’s assertive sexuality and the couple’s inversion of gender norms: She used it to light his cigarette just before making her sexual proposition in the bar (“I’ve never seen your apartment”). It is a significant reminder of both Tom’s subordinate class position as well as his sexual passivity and by discarding it so cavalierly Tom metaphorically castrates Susan: as the evidence that will link him to Patty Grey’s murder it becomes associated with the presumed sexual peccadillo that the prosecution offers as the explanation for Tom’s involvement with Patty. During the trial the lighter, symbol of Susan’s radical assertiveness, becomes instead evidence of her inability to hold her man and thus symbolic of her impotence. Her ‘failure’ as a woman becomes not only a matter of public knowledge (the gossip item) but public record (via court testimony). For Tom the deception surrounding the murder plot functions as both revenge upon Susan as well as a love test for her and whether she passes or fails, Tom wins: in the event that she is driven away, the threat of the castrating woman is eliminated; in the event that she relents (once the truth is known) she returns appropriately humbled and chastised (for her lack of faith).

Beyond-a-Reasonable-Doubt-5727_5If Tom’s behavior implies his discomfort with the patrician Susan, the corollary to this discomfort is the implied freedom he feels in the presence of socially inferior women, a freedom he reveals during his visits to the strip club, the Club Zombie, where he flirts with the hatcheck girl and sneaks a peek through a stripper’s dressing room door. Lang’s camera, however, implies a personal impotence in relation to all women. Deborah Thomas (1993: 60) notes that Fontaine’s haute couture dominates the visual field in her scenes with Andrews but one should additionally note that Barbara Nichol’s voluptuous and statuesque Dolly Moore has a similar effect in her scenes with Andrews. (Lang further underscores the male star’s visual reduction during Tom’s introduction to the backstage world of the strip club when Tom is dwarfed by an Amazon-like stripper). All of Tom’s actions can be explained as his calculated adoption of the persona of predatory male in furtherance of the murder plot but this in no way discounts the possible pleasure that the persona provides him personally as it allows for a public display of virility without any actual challenge to his potency. (His attack on Dolly in his car while under police surveillance is exemplary). The castration anxiety inferred by Tom’s sexual reluctance with Susan (the only woman, in fact, who makes demands of his sexual potency) and accentuated by Lang’s camera gives sinister undertones to his actions, including the murder of Patty Grey. The erotic implication of Tom’s use of a stocking to strangle Patty exemplifies the ambiguous interpretability of his actions: was the stocking meant to mislead investigators into thinking the murderer is a sexual psychopath or does it represent the impotent killer’s (Tom’s) sexual revenge against a taunting and exploitive woman?

Beyond-a-Reasonable-Doubt-5727_2Tom is the focal point for Lang’s critique of masculinity but he is just one in a network of representative males. From the strip club owner (Dan Seymour) who initiated an inexperienced Patty into stripping to Patty’s lover Mike Robinson, who would “rough her up just to keep in practice” the men are variously exploitive, opportunistic, and oppressive. One of the most ambiguous is Susan’s father, whom the viewer comes to suspect of additional subterfuge, perhaps of setting Tom up to be executed. With Austin Spencer/ Sidney Blackmer oppressive masculinity is taken into the realm of the bourgeois home and the patriarch’s incestuous possessiveness of his daughter. The grounds for rivalrous relations between Tom and Spencer are implied at the very moment of Susan’s introduction when she bestows kisses first upon her father’s head and then Tom’s lips, implying a turning of affection (and its eroticization) from the father to his replacement. Tom’s feelings for Susan being truly ambivalent (evidencing both desire and revulsion), mutual antagonism between the two men can be inferred as resulting from a mutual desire to possess Susan exclusively. In fact Tom and Spencer are further linked from the moment they agree to the plot, the instigation of which remains ambiguously attributable to both men (a point underlined by Susan’s query at the climax “But whose idea was it?”): designed by Spencer, he reveals the details of the plot in response to Tom’s seeming preoccupation with capital punishment (“Become engaged to my daughter and all you can talk about is capital punishment”) and Tom promptly provides the necessary body. Mutual antagonism is further suggested by two tantalizing bits of evidence: knowing from the police report that the killer smoked a pipe, Spencer (without Tom’s apparent knowledge) leaves tell-tale evidence of pipe smoking (the stained matchbook covers) in Tom’s garage; on the night of the murder, Tom, a non-pipesmoker, is seen smoking a pipe (as recalled by a witness) in an apparent attempt to implicate (or emulate?) the pipe-smoking Spencer. As with Tom, the concrete result of the plot (the dissolution of the engagement) suggests Spencer’s underlying motivation. (Although the discovery of the letter clearing Tom seemingly absolves Spencer of trying to destroy Tom, Lang makes clear that the letter is unusually inaccessible and that Spencer’s lawyer must get a court order to retrieve it, increasing the likelihood in the event of Spencer’s death of Tom’s execution).

The implications of masculine calculation and covert behavior that run throughout the film are in stark contrast to its opening moments which present a state execution as an apparently impersonal judicial process carried out dutifully by largely impartial male functionaries and witnesses, their implacably stern faces (with Spencer one of the few exceptions) testifying to their disinterest. This scene is easily read as symbolic of the world of masculine power that is potentially Tom’s, whose current fame derives from having written one well-received book. It is a world characterized as so repressive that even the condemned man can barely muster a response to his own impending death. (His lack of emotion will be mirrored by Tom at the conclusion when he faces his own projected execution). However, as in interpersonal relationships so in institutional roles is the patriarch governed by covert desires. Disinterest (the guarantee of the patriarch’s fairness in the various professional roles that are nonetheless personally empowering to him) is challenged within the film’s first few minutes when Spencer accuses the district attorney of pursuing capital cases because he aspires to the governorship and nothing in Thompson’s subsequent behavior contradicts this interpretation. Similarly the reform-minded Spencer summarizes the latest state execution in terms of personal competition between him and Thompson (“Score another one for Thompson”). By contrast Susan, refusing to make a pretense of disinterest even when she temporarily runs the newspaper after her father’s sudden death, insists upon using the paper to the fullest to free Tom. In the process she magnificently destabilizes institutionalized masculine power, her actions proving an affront not only to Thompson but to the paper’s veteran male staffers.

The heiress

Both Susan and her father are (so to speak) keepers of the metaphorical flame of economic power, a point underscored when, in the cocktail bar Spencer and subsequently Susan provide lights for Tom who, appropriately, never has a light. Susan’s economic power, of course, derives from her inheritance of the father’s. The heiress is a figure of recurring cultural interest, her fascination lying in her possession of the practical means (even when, like Henry James’ Catherine Sloper, she lacks the personal initiative) to confound her secondary patriarchal social status as a woman. She is often the focus of unscrupulous designs to relieve her of her inheritance (James is again the obvious literary touchstone here) as well as exclusively masculine designs to rectify the perversion of Woman’s ‘natural’ destiny which the heiress’ possession of money allows. This is a theme that is carried over into Hollywood’s Freudian-feminist dramas of the forties (the appellation is Thomas Elsaesser’s) and the casting of Joan Fontaine as Susan underlines the intertextual connection, the specific referent being Hitchcock’s Suspicion. The Lang film in fact inverts Hitchcock’s plot: where in the Hitchcock, Fontaine’s heiress marries a man whom she comes to suspect of murder (until a last minute disclosure reveals his innocence), in the Lang she is engaged to a man she believes innocent of murder (until a last minute disclosure reveals his guilt). In both cases Fontaine’s heterosexual commitment results in hysteria and emotional collapse, both symptomatic of an irresolvable internal conflict.

beyond2The heroines of such melodramas as Suspicion and Cukor’s Gaslight exemplify the heiress as ingenuous victim of her heterosexual commitment: each has asserted (over objections in each case) her right to personal choice, and if the results prove eventually detrimental to her, she has not in any way violated democratic principles in the process. However, what of the heiress who, while submitting to the overwhelming social demand to commit to male-dominated heterosexuality, also recognizes and accepts her advantageous economic position and usurps the familiar privilege of the male to flex his economic might in all matters, including romance, exploiting her wealth in aggressive pursuit of her beloved? In such a case all the cultural anxiety generated by the alignment of women and wealth quickly arises and the cultural conundrum that the heiress represents is suddenly settled and she becomes the rich bitch. One should note that even when her clout is not presented in terms of upsetting the stability of male power in the culture’s predominant sexual arrangement, as a woman the heiress often acts as a magnet for any cultural ambivalence which attaches to the inheritance of wealth and its attendant class privilege in a democratic society and she can find herself the object of criticism that is at best invalid and, at worst, mean-spirited. (These respective tendencies are best exemplified by the text’s ambivalence toward the Katharine Hepburn heiress in Stage Door and its outright hostility toward her in The Philadelphia Story).

The patriarchal fear of women and wealth is such that the division between feminine assertiveness and manipulation is essentially non-existent, just as the rhyming of ‘rich’ and ‘bitch’ suggests that, where women are concerned, the former inevitably results in the latter. In the hands of a particularly sensitive artist, however, society’s oppression of the heiress as a woman is foregrounded even when the heiress is clearly manipulative. In Minnelli’s An American in Paris, the heiress Milo Robinson/Nina Foch clearly maneuvers the hero (Gene Kelly) in very undemocratic ways. But in the film’s memorable limo ride back from a Montparnasse café, Foch and Minnelli splendidly reveal the desperation of the woman who, though economically independent, is nonetheless subject to the same ideological pressures as her economically-deprived sisters. As Foch here upstages Kelly dramatically so too does Milo’s sudden emotional outburst forever problematize our relationship to the male protagonist.

invraisemblable-verite-01-gFoch’s dramatic shift from poise to vulnerability captures beautifully the heiress’ duality, a duality which will also come to characterize Susan, as the contrasting images of the poised woman in the cocktail bar at the film’s start (“I’ve never seen your apartment”) and the woman who collapses (“I can’t, I can’t!”) at the conclusion make apparent. The casting of Fontaine has an added relevance, specifically in relation to the heiress as potential bitch. The dramatic inversion of the Fontaine persona of the 1940s (social and/or sexual naiveté, acute emotional and physical trepidation and vulnerability, a submissiveness to masculine dominance which Molly Haskell famously described as masochistic) into the poised, fashionable and often brittle sophisticate of some of her post-forties work testifies amply to the extreme disquiet Fontaine’s earlier rendering of female victimhood had induced. In Katharine Hepburn: Star as Feminist Andrew Britton notes that “the various phases of a star’s career are implicit in the others” and further that any given phase “will be accompanied by the shadow […] of its counterparts” (1995: 213). Thus the inversion of key elements of the Fontaine persona during the 1950s is already anticipated by the transformation her characters undergo from ingenuous youthfulness to knowing womanhood in her 1940s work for Hitchcock and Ophüls. (Fontaine’s narrative maturation was such a key element to her screen persona that in 1945 it was subjected to partial parody in the comedy The Affairs of Susan).

Star careers also evidence a remarkable consistency deriving from the fact that (as Britton further notes) “each phase can be viewed as a specific attempt to solve the problems produced by the ideological material organized in the persona”. From Rebecca (1940) to Tender is the Night (1962) Fontaine is regularly cast as the patriarch’s daughter, her oeuvre largely concerned with the problem of a daughter’s more or less affectionate identification with her father. Fontaine’s early work for Hitchcock and Ophüls is primarily concerned with the critical bearing this relationship has on the development of the daughter’s sexual/romantic fantasies, fantasies which the culture everywhere encourages but the texts in question recognize as detrimental to her. These texts define male-dominated heterosexual relations as confining, oppressive, and unfulfilling for women and the daughter’s eventual entrapment in the culture’s primary sexual arrangement (or in Ophüls’ Letter from and Unknown Woman, a fantasy of its realization) results directly from her internalization of the culture’s gender norms as romantic fantasy, a process instigated by a primary patriarchal agent, her own father.

Beyond is part of a trilogy of Fontaine films (that also includes Mann’s Serenade and Robert Rossen’s Island in the Sun) which is less concerned with Woman’s inheritance of the culture’s gender norms than the potential subversion of these norms as a result of the Fontaine protagonist’s social hegemony (deriving from family, income, race, etc.) over her lover. However, the crucial narrative difference between the early work and these later films lies in the father’s social position. In Rebecca and Ophüls’ Letter the father’s social insignificance (an unsuccessful artist in the former, a minor municipal bureaucrat in the latter) facilitates his seduction of the daughter, his apparent impotence blinding the daughter to the potential consequences of being ‘daddy’s little girl’. In the Mann and Lang films (as well as Suspicion) Fontaine is the heiress and it is her identification, both personally and publicly, with a socially prominent father that problematizes her heterosexual commitments. (Although there is no father in the Rossen, Fontaine is nonetheless heir to both class and race privilege and she essentially attempts to sacrifice her social prominence for her lover).

Both Fontaine and her respective collaborators are to be credited for preserving viewer empathy for the heiress, glacially self-possessed as the Fontaine heiress may be. In Serenade, for example, the heiress’ manipulations of her lover clearly merit her the label ‘bitch’. Yet even here an old family friend remembers watching her as a child “at the beach in front of her father’s summer place at Newport, building beautiful castles in the sand – just for the exquisite pleasure of knocking them down.” No less than in Fontaine’s earlier work, the memory of the daughter’s symbolic destruction of the patriarchal home suggests that her adult distress derives from childhood experiences with the father.

VIENNALE-ARCHIVThe adult heiress may also discover that additional means have been deployed to circumvent her agency. Like many a patriarch before him Austin Spencer (who shares a first name with James’ odious Dr. Sloper) institutes through his will the means whereby the heiress’ authority over his legacy will be inhibited even after his death: Susan will own the newspaper but it will be run by committee. With the greatest of ironies the crusading, liberal-minded capitalist hinders his daughter’s access to power by forestalling the institution of democratic principles (the installation of the committee) until after his own sovereign reign. Thus, whether she opts to challenge the operations of capitalism at their institutional base or allows operations to continue status quo, the heiress finds the decision has been efficiently taken out of her hands. The female heir finds herself in the paradoxical position of having access to a lot of money but nothing much to do with it that society validates. If she then drifts into the traditional female role it is not necessarily solely of her own volition. Under these conditions, Susan’s analytical approach to compulsory heterosexuality acquires an aspect of radicalism, unique among Fontaine’s daughters in being neither romantic (as in Suspicion) nor malicious (as in Serenade). Exercising her right of selection to the fullest, Susan’s choice of future husband is based both upon personal taste (she has already rejected the DA’s assistant, a perfectly obliging nice guy) and exemplary logic: discovering Tom’s involvement with Dolly Moore, Susan breaks with him not because he has betrayed the ethos of romance but because he has lied to her. Susan seems perfectly aware not only of the potential losses for women entailed in bourgeois marriage but the additional threat posed to the heiress by opportunistic suitors. Consequently, truth is of considerably greater value to her than fidelity. With an austerity typical of the Fontaine sophisticate, Susan dismisses Tom’s philandering as an exercise of the male ego and (while giving him ample opportunity to explain) ends the relationship.

One is not surprised that Susan’s anti-Romance philosophy has been misinterpreted by critics. An oversimplified reading of performance can be cited as partially causal: “Joan Fontaine […] is regal and chilly,” noted the The New York Herald Tribune (September 19, 1956) at the time of the film’s release. Twenty years later Gene Phillips provided this reading of the film: “In Beyond a Reasonable Doubt for example, a woman [Joan Fontaine] finds out that her lover once killed his mistress, but she doesn’t turn him in until she falls in love with someone else” (1976: 50).

Certainly faulty critical faculties can be blamed for this reading, which misrepresents Lang’s film, in both letter and spirit, to a remarkable degree. I would propose, however, that the particulars of Mr. Phillips’ construction betray again the culture’s ambivalence toward (while not explicitly referring to) the heiress, for whom no degree of imagined anti-democratic behavior or Machiavellian calculation seems too extreme.

The downfall of an heiress

Susan does eventually commit to Tom in the conventional sense. Strindberg’s Miss Julie provides the prototypical example of the heiress who discovers, too late, the limited efficacy of her economic privilege as counterbalance to the ruthless terms of male-dominated heterosexuality, an opportunistic male, and her own social indoctrination by the Father’s Law. Seventy years after Strindberg’s account of the tragic heiress, Lang’s film demonstrates that, although both class divisions and female chastity are of less consequence to the heiress, ideological constraints do continue to bear heavily upon her. The process whereby Susan’s analytical powers are redirected from Tom’s person to the efforts to save him is also that of her gradual ideological conversion as a woman ‘in love’. Tom’s trial is the catalyst for her transformation providing as much an opportunity to try Susan as woman as Tom for murder. Two moments during the trial are particularly suggestive: in the first Susan testifies that she can’t recall when she last saw the gift lighter (she clearly does recall and is lying on Tom’s behalf); in the second she lowers her eyes slightly in apparent shame when Tom, on the witness stand, recalls their broken engagement. The implication of these two moments is that Susan’s ideological conversion takes place under the auspices of ‘love’ and guilt: Susan lies because the codes of appropriate feminine behavior (to which, despite her emotional detachment, her heterosexual attachment had partially committed her) with their specific emphasis on devotion and faith even in the face of reasonable doubt, dictate this is what a woman does for someone to whom she had formerly committed herself in the name of love. Similarly, Susan experiences shame because the broken engagement seemingly provides the evidence of blackmail (because of Tom’s withdrawal and sudden re-depositing of a large sum of money, which he falsely testifies was for the purchase of an engagement ring) that may convict Tom. The successful culmination of Susan’s ideological indoctrination is signaled some time later in the film when she states “When you love someone you must believe in him,” a conventional declaration of devotion that just happens to make explicit the ideological basis (“you must believe in him”) of being ‘in love’.

beyondareasonabledoubtAlthough the sentiment expressed here seems completely at odds with the Susan of the film’s first half, Lang begins suggesting Susan’s capitulation to a self-abnegating femininity even before the trial (countered initially by her clinical approach to heterosexual relations). The gift lighter, for instance, has a dual symbolic function: if it represents Susan’s sexual assertiveness, by giving it Tom as an engagement present Susan symbolically relinquishes future control of marriage’s sexual component to Tom. Later in the film Susan appears in the stereotypical costume of the odalisque – bared shoulders, sheer, billowing scarf, bejeweled hair – with the express purpose of enticing Tom (“I want to show you what you’ve been missing”). In fact one item of apparel – the veil – is used throughout to indicate Susan’s capitulation to conventional gender behavior. Her donning of the veil corresponds in each instance to an action that indicates her commitment to compulsory heterosexuality (before and, incongruously, immediately following the couple’s implied lovemaking; her appearance on the witness stand) or a crisis generated by that commitment (the denouement; her subsequent breakdown).

90516-004-4EE1D349It is absolutely essential to Lang’s strategy that despite Susan’s explicit declaration of her commitment we nonetheless remain aware of the disparity between the woman and the conventional gender role to which she is committed and that the ideological construction of Woman be foregrounded. In collusion with the modernist strategy of the surprise revelation, Lang deploys various Brechtian stylistic strategies in making his feminist political point. Fashion for example is used to underline the alien nature of Susan’s new role, her haute couture jarringly at odds with the persona of ‘woman desperately fighting for her lover’. But performance in Beyond provides the film’s most pronounced and insistent example of Verfremdungseffekt. Performance in Beyond has been subjected to much critical commentary: one review (Variety, September 12, 1956) described the cast as “seemingly performing with an almost casual air.” The performances – variously flat, conventional, even (as Pye describes Andrews’ performance) disjointed – fulfill the Brechtian function of discouraging identification.

The film’s flat performance style, however, does not always refer to Brechtian stylization: it is also dramatically and thematically relevant. The flattest, least emotionally engaging performances are given by the actors whose characters represent forms of systemic masculine power. (Bourneuf’s DA can be taken as representative). Conversely the most vivid and idiosyncratic performances are given by the three actresses (Nichols, Robin Raymond, Joyce Taylor) who portray the three strippers, professionally the most oppressed characters within the film but, consequently, the ones least required to adopt a façade of either disinterest or bourgeois decorum (of which emotional flatness can be read as symptomatic).

Brechtian distanciation is achieved more clearly in the performances of the two leads who, outside of certain key dramatic moments, tend equally toward a flat and conventional performance style: neither seems convincingly in love. The strategy works beautifully for Lang, the stars’ performances fulfilling the Brechtian function of heightening critical awareness: as Romance is something Lang presents but refuses to convincingly represent through performance (compare the omission of the love scene at the film’s start) the viewer is forced to look for other factors motivating the lovers as individuals, of which opportunism for Tom and the burden of compulsory heterosexuality for Susan are primary.

It is finally a conflict between her commitment to an ideology of femininity and her objective social obligations that precipitates the internal crisis that results in Susan’s breakdown. The presence of her former lover Bob Hale/Arthur Franz after Tom’s inadvertent revelation of his guilt is vital both to our understanding of the internal conflict’s gender basis and to project the possible course of Susan’s future. In contrast to Susan, there is no question of either biological reproduction or the reproduction of social norms within the domestic sphere defining Bob: he can forego domesticity, form homosocial bonds and still fulfill a viable social role. Thus when Susan’s dilemma (i.e. should she reveal Tom’s guilt) is put to him hypothetically he can move fluidly between polar opposite positions, from “Loving you how could I not do anything possible to save you” to “You must speak now!” (i.e. reveal the truth). There being no question of his role in bourgeois domesticity defining him personally, both positions seem equally credible.

As with Suspicion’s Lina McLaidlaw the two positions are incompatible for Susan: denouncing her lover is a betrayal of her heterosexual obligation; her complicit silence allows a murderer to go free. Lang is no more concerned with the abstract moral implications of the dilemma than he is with capital punishment per se but Susan’s automatic response to Tom’s confession (“And all you could think of was murder?”) provides her own very personal indictment of Tom, with the additional implication that, should he go free and she remain with him, she too is potentially a victim. Unable to resolve the conflict, she breaks down.

Returning to Mr. Phillips, his reading is just close enough to actual narrative developments to mislead the inattentive viewer. As the governor’s phone inquiry makes clear however (“Is Miss Spencer there with you?”) it is not Susan herself who at the conclusion turns Tom in but, presumably, Bob Hale. The final, lingering image of Susan is that of a woman in a state of abject emotional collapse. To make the point that the information that leads to Tom’s execution does not come directly from Susan but indirectly via Bob is not mere quibbling: it signifies the final abandoning of Susan’s autonomous agency. Lang has also prepared us for the possibility that Bob might become the eventual focus of Susan’s heterosexual commitment, not however in the calculated manner imagined by Mr. Phillips but rather in a spirit of final defeat. In an earlier scene Susan’s gratitude to Bob expressed itself as personal atonement (“I never thought I’d be leaning on you, relying on you like this. I’m not sure I deserve it”). This clearly links with the earlier declaration of her devotion to Tom as additional evidence of her capitulation to self-effacing femininity. The process whereby the imperious woman of the film’s first half becomes the woman who relinquishes decision making to a former lover at the conclusion is a process of patriarchal indoctrination.

Robert K. Lightning is a New York City based film and media critic. He is a regular contributor to CineAction magazine. He can be reached at robertlightning@yahoo.com.

References

Britton, Andrew (1995), Katharine Hepburn: Star as Feminist, New York: Continuum.

Phillips, Gene (1976), “Fritz Lang Gives His Last Interview,” The Village Voice, August 16, pp. 50-51.

Pye, Douglas (1993), “Film Noir and Suppressive Narrative,” in Ian Cameron (ed.), The Book of Film Noir, New York: Continuum, pp. 98-109.

Thomas, Deborah (1993), “How Hollywood Deals with the Deviant Male,” in Ian Cameron (ed.), The Book of Film Noir, New York: Continuum, pp. 59-70.


[1] Part of this article was previously published as “Joan Fontaine’s Heiress: Star in Transition,” in CineAction, no. 55, July 2001, pp. 68-71. We thank the editors of CineAction for the permission to republish.

4 Comments for “Vindication of an Heiress: Surprise revelation, alienation effect, and screen persona in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

  1. Christopher Sharrett

    What a superb piece of criticism! Sustained seriousness and intelligence.

  2. Whenever I see this film, I always remember what Lang told Peter Bogdanovich about shooting the film – “I was very afraid of the ending. I showed Dana Andrews for an hour and forty minutes as a wonderful, clean cut man -and in two minutes, I show that he is a son of a bitch.”

    And, in the end, how Lang abandoned not only the film, but Hollywood as well as a result of the numerous fights he had with the producer on the film – “I was disgusted. I told my cutter, Gene Fowler, what I wanted so I knew the picture would be in good hands, and I left. Then, when everything was finished, the producer suddenly started to be sweet again: ‘ But you don’t want to leave me now?’ I said, ‘Yes, I am sick and tired of you.” I left. I looked back over the past – how many pictures had been mutilated – and since I didn’t have any intention of dying of a heart attack, I said, ‘I think I’ll step out of this rat race.’ And I decided not to make pictures here anymore.

    Excellent piece.

  3. A very exemplary article in the best traditions of MOVIE and the quality articles once associated with cineACTION.

  4. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    Interesting take, Robert, and a well argued essay. I am rather more concerned with the elements of female castration in the film and in a number of Lang films.

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