The first point that strikes the unsuspecting spectator, a few minutes into the film, is the diagrammatic, or rather expository aspect instantly assumed by the unfolding of the images: as though what we were watching were less the mise en scene of a script than simply the reading of this script, presented to us just as it is, without embellishment. Without personal comment of any kind on the part of the storyteller either. So one might be tempted to talk about a purely objective mise en scene, if such a thing were possible: more prudent, therefore, to suppose this to be some stratagem, and wait to see what happens.
The second point at first seems to confirm this impression: this is the proliferation of denials underlying the very conception of the film, and possibly constituting it. The denial, ostentatiously, of reasonableness, both in the elaboration of the plot as well as in that other more factitious reasonableness in setting up situations, in preparation, in atmosphere, which usually enables scriptwriters the world over to put across plot points ten times more capricious than the ones here without any difficulty at all. No concession is made here to the everyday, to detail: no remarks about the weather, the cut of a dress, the graciousness of a gesture; if one does become aware of a brand of make-up, it is for purposes of plot. We are plunged into a world of necessity, all the more apparent in that it coexists so harmoniously with the arbitrariness of the premises; Lang, as is well known, always seeks the truth beyond the reasonable, and here seeks it from the threshold of the unreasonable. Another denial, on a par with the first, is of the picturesque: connoisseurs will find none of those amusingly sketched silhouettes, the sparkling repartee, or the brilliant touches due more to surprise than to invention, which are currently making the reputations, after so many others, of film-makers like Lumet or Kubrick. All these denials, moreover, are conducted with a sort of disdain which some have been tempted to see as the film-maker's contempt for the undertaking; why not, rather, for this kind of spectator?
Then, as the film continues on its way, these first impressions find their justification. The expository tone proves to be the right one, since all the data for a problem -- two problems, actually -- are being propounded to us: the first derives from the script, and being quite clear, need not be dwelt on for the moment; the other, more subterranean, might reasonably be formulated as follows: given certain conditions of temperature and pressure (here of a transcendental order of experience), can anything human subsist in such an atmosphere? Or, more unassumingly, what part of life, even inhuman, can subsist in a quasi-abstract universe which is nevertheless within the range of possible universes? In other words, a science fiction problem. (For anyone doubting this assumption, I would suggest a comparison between this film and Woman in the Moon, where the plot served Lang primarily as a pretext for his first attempt at a totally closed world).
At this point the coup de theatre intervenes: five minutes before the denouement, the terms of the problem are suddenly reversed, much to the dismay of Cartesian spirits, who scarcely acknowledge the technique of dialectical inversion. Although the solutions may also seem to be modified, however, it only seems so. The proportions remain unchanged, and, all the conditions thus being fulfilled, poetry makes its entry. Q.E.D.
The word poetry may astonish here, doubtless being hardly the term one would have expected. I shall let it stand provisionally, however, since I know no other that better expresses this sudden fusion into a single vibration of all the elements hitherto kept separate by the abstract and discursive purpose. So let us proceed to the most immediate consequences.
One of these I have already alluded to: the reactions of the audience. A film like this is obviously the absolute antithesis of the idea of 'an entertaining evening', and by comparison Un Condamne a mort s'est echappe or The Wrong Man are jolly Saturday nights out. Here one breathes, if I may venture to say so, the rarefied air of the summits, but at risk of asphyxiation; one should have expected no less from the ultimate in overstepping bounds by one of the most intransigent spirits of today, whose recent films had already prepared us for this coup d'etat of absolute understanding.
Another objection I take more to heart: that this film is purely negative, and so effective in its destructive aspects that it ends ultimately by destroying itself. This is not unreasonable. In talking just now of denials, I was too tentative: destruction is in fact the word I should have used. Destruction of the scene: since no scene is treated for its own sake, all that subsists is a series of pure moments, of which all that is retained is the mediatory aspect; anything that might determine or actualize them more concretely is not abstracted or suppressed -- Lang is not Bresson -- but devalued and reduced to the condition of pure spatio-temporal reference, devoid of embodiment. Destruction, even, of the characters: each of them here is really no more than what he says and what he does. Who are Dana Andrews, Joan Fontaine, her father? Questions like this no longer have any meaning, for the characters have lost all individual quality, are not more than human concepts. But in consequence they are all the more human for being the less individual. Here we find the first answer: what remains of humanity? There is now only pure humanity, whereas Fellini's exhibitionists instantly reduce it by compromising it with their lies and buffoonery (lies obligatory when one attempts to reconstitute some extraordinary situation, buffoonery all the more offensive in that it purports to be 'realistic' and not simply pulling faces). Anyone who fails to be more moved by this film than by such appeals for sympathy knows nothing, not only of cinema but of man.
Strange, this destroyer, leading us to this conclusion while obliging us to resume the objection in reverse: if this film is negative, it can only be so in the mode of the pure negative, which is of course also the Hegelian definition of intelligence. (2)
It is difficult to find a precise formula to define the personality of Fritz Lang (best
forgotten are the notions someone like Clouzot might have): an 'expressionist' film-maker, meticulous about decor and lighting? Rather too summary. Supreme architect? This seems less and less true. Brilliant director of actors? Of course, but what else? What I propose is this: Lang is the cineaste of the concept, which suggests that one cannot talk of abstraction or stylization in connection with him without falling into error, but of necessity (necessity which must be able to contradict itself without losing its reality): moreover it is not an exterior necessity -- the film-maker's, for instance -- but derived from the real movement of the concept. It is up to the spectator to assume responsibility not only for the thoughts and 'motives' of the characters, but for this movement from the Interior, grasping the phenomenon solely on its appearances; it is up to him to know how to transform its contradictory moments into the concept. What, then, is this film really? Fable, parable, equation, blueprint? None of these things, but simply the description of an experiment.
I realize I have not yet mentioned the subject of this experiment; it isn't without interest, either. The starting point is merely a new, actually quite subtle variation on the usual indictment of the death penalty: a series of damning circumstances may send an innocent man to the electric chair; furthermore, though the innocent is finally found really to be guilty, it is only by his own confession just at the point where his innocence had in fact been recognized; hence, vanity of human justice, judge not, and so forth. But this soon begins to seem too facile: the denouement resists such easy reduction, and immediately leads in to a second movement: there can be no 'wrong man'; all men are guilty a priori; and the one who has just been mistakenly reprieved cannot prevent himself from immediately incriminating himself. This same movement takes us into a pitiless world where everything denies grace, where sin and penalty are irremediably bound together, and where the only possible attitude of the creator must be one of absolute contempt. But an attitude like this is difficult to sustain: whereas magnanimity leaves itself open to the inevitable loss of its illusions, to disappointment and bitterness, contempt can encounter only pleasant surprises and realize eventually, not that man is not contemptible (he remains so), but that he perhaps isn't quite so much so as might have been supposed.
So all this obliges us to pass this second stage as well, and finally attempt to reach, beyond, that of truth. But of what order can this be?
I think I see a solution: which is that it may be pointless to attempt to contrast this latest film of Fritz Lang's with earlier ones like Fury or You Only Live Once. What in fact do we see in each case? In the earlier films, innocence with all the appearances of guilt; here, guilt with all the appearances of innocence. Can anyone fail to see that they're about the same thing, or at least about the same question? Beyond appearances, what are guilt and innocence? Is one ever in fact innocent or guilty? If, in the absolute, there is an answer, it can probably only be negative; to each, then, to create for himself his own truth, however unreasonable it may be. In the final shot, the hero finally conceives himself innocent or guilty. Rightly or wrongly, what matter to him?
Remembering the last lines of Les Voix du Silence, "Humanism does not mean saying: what I have done, etc... " let us salute that scarcely wrinkled hand in the penultimate shot, ineluctably at rest near to pardon, and which does not cause even a tremor in this most secret form of the power and the glory of being man.
Translated by Tom Milne
- This is a review of Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, known in France as Invraisemblable Verite ("Implausible truth", "improbable truth"). Vraisemblable has been rendered here as "reasonable" to conform with Rivette's play of words on the French title. (Ed.)
- I know the objection that will undoubtedly be raised: that what we are concerned with here is merely a classic device of the detective novel, particularly the second-rate variety characterized by a sudden dramatic revelation in which the basic premises are turned upside down or altered. But the fact that we find this notion of the 'coup de theatre' reappearing in the scripts of all recent important films may mean that what seemed at first to be in the order of arbitrary dramatics is in fact necessity, and that all these films, despite their diversity of theme, no doubt assume precisely the same inner process which Lang makes his immediate subject. Just as the pact which binds Von Stratten to Arkadin takes on its full reality only when it proves to be negated in its original form, or Irene's fear of blackmail [in Rossellini's Fear] only when we know it to be devised by her husband, so the necessity of the dialectic movement alone renders credible the resurrection in Ordet, the surrender of The Golden Coach, the conversion in Stromboli, Rossellini, Renoir and Dreyer having openly disdained any justification outside this ultimate reversal. On the other hand, it is clearly the absence of this movement that is the most serious deficiency in the scripts of films like Oeil pour oeil or Les Espions; and that the sense of dissatisfaction left by films in other respects as accomplished as Un Condamne a mort s'est echappe or The Wrong Man probably has no other cause. Not that a movement like this, whose process comprises the element of contradiction, is foreign to Hitchcock or Bresson (one need only think, for instance, of Suspicion or Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne), nor that it is totally absent from their most recent films, though it is there rather by implication and never dependent on the rigor of the concept: there is an element of wager in Fontaine's escape, but more particularly the logical consequence of his persistence; its success never seems anything other than the parity achieved by the proof of a theorem (a mistake never made by the greatest cineaste of human endeavor: cf. the endings of Scarface, To Have and Have Not, Red River, etc.). Or again, one simply has to compare the miracle in The Wrong Man with the one in Voyage to Italy to see the clash between two diametrically antithetical ideas, not only of Grace (in the former film, a reward for zeal in prayer; in the latter, pure deliverance lighting, within the very moment of despair, upon raw faith that is totally unaware of itself), but also of freedom, and that this preoccupation with necessity -- or with logic, to use one of Rossellini's favorite terms -- is carried to such lengths by these film-makers only the better to affirm the freedom of the characters and, quite simply, to make it possible: a freedom quite impossible, on the other hand, in the arbitrary worlds of Cayette or Clouzot, in which only puppets can exist. -- What I say of recent film-makers is also true, it seems to me, for the whole of cinema, starting with the work of F. W. Murnau; and Sunrise remains a perfect example of rigorous dialectic construction. In this, however, I make no claim to be breaking new ground (cf. among others, Alexandre Astruc's article 'Cinema et dialectique').
Originally appeared in Cahiers du cinema No. 76, November 1957, p. 48-51. English translation appeared in Rivette: Texts & Interviews (British Film Institute, 1977), p. 65-8.