Elia Kazan’s third picture is a hard-hitting noir, a true story that honors the efforts of a noble States’ Attorney when confronted with a murder case that was a little too open-and-shut. But a close read of the movie uncovers a miasma of social criticism, hiding behind the self-congratulating official narration. A great show.
KL Studio Classics
1947 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 88 min. / Street Date November 15, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Dana Andrews, Jane Wyatt, Lee J. Cobb, Sam Levene, Arthur Kennedy, Cara Williams, Ed Begley, Taylor Holmes, Robert Keith.
Cinematography Norbert Brodine
Art Direction Richard Day, Chester Gore
Film Editor Harmon Jones
Original Music David Buttolph
Written by Richard Murphy from an article in The Reader’s Digest by Anthony Abbot (Fulton Oursier)
Produced by Louis De Rochemont, Darryl F. Zanuck
Directed by Elia Kazan
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In just his second movie, director Elia Kazan took an early step toward the socially conscious statements that many another graduate of Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration were diving into wholeheartedly — films that explored race & ethnic prejudice and corruption in the police and government. Kazan eventually made several of these, all compromised a little or a lot: Pinky, Gentleman’s Agreement, Viva Zapata!. And he followed them with the toe-the-line anti-Red drama Man on a Tightrope, the king of picture that liberal actors might volunteer perform in, to keep their name off of somebody’s list.
But back near the beginning, Kazan’s excellent Boomerang! uses subtle strokes with its messages. It seems at first to be solely about a determined prosecutor doing the right thing and proving that American institutions work under pressure. I’ve never had the title explained to me. Perhaps it’s in a piece of dialogue I missed, but to me a boomerang is something you do that comes back and smacks you in the face. I think Kazan at first meant to make a scathing critique of the mythic virtues of small towns, compared to the corrupt big cities. Richard Murphy’s screenplay gives most of the players self-serving reasons to do what they do… but a close read of the movie is even more revealing. I think Kazan tried to stress a subtext that brings the corruption right into the heroic prosecutor’s own household.
Despite the excellence of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Elia Kazan called Boomerang! his first ‘real movie’. He said it was flawed but both the public and the critics disagreed. The film has an odd double-edged agenda. On the surface it champions our way of justice, demonstrating that American laws will protect a defendant from over-zealous prosecution, even when circumstantial evidence is against him. On the other hand, what narrator Reed Hadley assures us is a ‘typical American town’ is a nest of power politics, abuse of authority, and expedient police methods. This is New England, yet vicious vigilantes get close to forming a lynch mob. The movie is based on an actual unsolved case from the 1930s. Producer Louis de Rochemont filmed it entirely on location, a real novelty for 1947. Technically, the first thing we hear is a total lie: the narration claims that the show was filmed where it happened and that nothing was fictionalized.
Kazan directs much of the picture in the semi-docu fashion that Fox would soon make their house style for tough, realistic thrillers. Bridgeport, Connecticut is turned upside-down when a beloved priest is murdered on the street in cold blood. When no suspects are found the out-of-office political machine campaigns to link the unsolved crime to the ‘incompetence’ of the current occupants of City Hall, the Reform Party. Opposition leader T.M. Wade (Taylor Holmes) uses his newspaper to ridicule the police and the mayor. Wade’s top reporter Dave Woods (Sam Levene) refuses to choose sides and prefers to find out what’s happening behind the scenes. Meanwhile, the State’s Attorney Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews) does his best to calm his Reform Party friends, like Police Chief “Robbie” Robinson (Lee J. Cobb), who wants to quit. The so-called reformers don’t seem to trust the public either, especially Paul Harris, the Commissioner of Public Works (Ed Begley). Harvey concedes that the bad publicity could also end his career. He receives solid support from his socially active wife Madge (Jane Wyatt).
Then an apparently guilty suspect is pulled in from out of state. Several witnesses, including a hostile ex-girlfriend (Cara Williams) place drifter John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy) at the scene of the crime. Waldron carries the right kind of gun, and the police lab confirms that it was indeed the murder weapon. Chief Robinson grills Waldron until he breaks down and signs a confession. That would seem to be that, except, as the formal arraignment looms near, Harvey becomes concerned that Waldron isn’t being given a fair shake. Harvey’s own party thinks he’s defected to T.M. Wade’s camp, Robinson calls him a ‘dirty politician.’ Commissioner Harris — who has an illegal real estate deal pending that depends on the Reform Party’s victory — threatens Harvey not to allow Waldron to go free.
The supposedly factual Boomerang! is a noir tale with many fictional elements. The real-life crime was never solved, but since the Production Code required that no crime go unpunished, the film invents a guilty party and clobbers him with an Act of God. This fits in with all those asinine Crime Does Not Pay short subjects that irrationally insist that no criminal gets away with anything, even if he has to be hit by a bus twenty years in the future to ‘prove’ it. The screenwriters are fairly subtle, but they still nominate and then condemn their own ‘suspect.’ That the State of Connecticut chooses not to prosecute John Waldron doesn’t mean he wasn’t the killer. It means that he doesn’t deserve to be railroaded to a conviction.
The script points to the disturbed Crossman (Philip Coolidge of The Tingler) as the guilty party, and Kazan pointedly shows him that his guilty behaviors go unnoticed. I have a feeling that 90% of the 1947 audience didn’t pick up on this angle at all. In the average movie, unless something is stated loud and clear, it doesn’t communicate. It’s like the old Kubrick story about the Moon and Clavius. *
Boomerang! artfully details the balance of political power in Bridgeport. We understand clearly that the opposition party is abusing the power of the press. We also realize that Ed Begley’s Paul Harris has wrongly used his office for personal profit in that rigged real estate deal. The Reform Party cronies are so frantic to insure a conviction for John Waldron that we suspect that they all may have crooked deals going on. Boomerang! shows little of State’s Attorney Harvey’s investigation process, focusing instead on the ‘gang warfare’ between the town’s two political parties, reporter Woods’ attempt to see behind the façade, and the police department’s brutal extraction of a confession from Waldron.
Beating information out of prisoners was not uncommon in 1947 police departments. When Chief Robinson decides not to use that option on Waldron, he’s basically telling us that it was still on the table as a choice. Robinson instead relies on sleep-deprivation — essentially torture — until Waldron breaks down emotionally and signs. Robinson knows he’s doing a dirty job. He’s a dedicated man following traditional procedure. The rest of the Reform Party finds it equally expedient to presume Waldron guilty and close the book on him. The public certainly doesn’t give a damn. The witnesses are all too happy to condemn whatever man the police choose. A different group of ‘responsible citizens’ attempts to lynch Waldron on his way to a hearing. Yet the narration in Boomerang! celebrates a triumph of American virtue!
At the center of the drama is State’s Attorney Henry Harvey. As he’s played in noble fashion by Dana Andrews we know Harvey will stand up for what’s right, and he indeed resists the arm-twisting of the City Hall cronies who got him his job. But Harvey is interested in running for higher office, too. The movie presents Harvey’s home life with Jane Wyatt’s Madge in a positive light, even when Madge reveals that she has money invested with Paul Harris in that crooked real estate deal. Madge’s act is never acknowledged to be anything but an honest mistake, yet the flicker in Madge’s eye suggests otherwise. Her commitment seems strongly based on hope for money and status in the future. It’s also partly based on not facing unpleasant realities, like their inability to have children. At one point Henry sees that, to stay honest, he might have to give up on his political ambitions and the prosperous future they offer. He asks Madge if she’s willing to scale down their lifestyle and, “go back to like it was in college.” Madge’s unruffled but carefully chosen response is, “We’re a lot older now.” What she’s really saying is, ‘No way in Hell.’
The movie ends with Harvey saving the day with a courtroom stunt that’s highly theatrical, not to mention career enhancing. ‘Justice’ may prevail, but Harvey’s main achievement has been to secure the Reform Party’s hold on the city. Their dirty dealings will remain hidden and the status quo will be maintained. Harvey won’t be tainted by his wife’s foolish involvement with Paul Harris.
The problem is Madge’s presumed innocence. In the flashback to the city planning meeting near the beginning of the film, Madge and Harris enthusiastically rally the committee to buy a piece of property. They don’t say that the plot of land belongs to a Harris-owned company, and that society wife Madge is a principal investor. It’s a criminal conflict of interest, and society wife Madge is a bona-fide crook. The Production Code is adamant that no criminal can go unpunished, to the point of inventing a fictitious murderer for Boomerang! and then eliminating him with an Act of God. Meanwhile, the future wife of Father Knows Best gets off Scot-free with the rest of the Reform Party cronies. We don’t bat an eye because she’s ‘respectable.’
Elia Kazan’s direction of actors is solid. The leads are excellent, especially Andrews in his lengthy trial monologue. This is Ed Begley’s first film and he’s very good, although often criticized as playing too low-key. Around the periphery we see Robert Keith as a nervous crony, Cara Williams as the vindictive waitress, a young Karl Malden, Barry Kelly (The Asphalt Jungle) as a desk cop and Edgar Stehli as the coroner. The elderly witness to the killing is Joe Kazan, the real ‘Uncle Joe’ whose emigration from Turkey would be dramatized in Kazan’s excellent movie America, America. For another face to play one of the many luckless men in a police lineup, Kazan used the playwright Arthur Miller!
Elia Kazan was a cagey fellow with a self-preservation streak a mile wide. I have a feeling that one reason Kazan dismissed his film as an exercise was because he hadn’t communicated his subversive message as well as he would have wished. Yet with its political corruption, vigilantes and corner-cutting police force, Boomerang! is still a rebuttal to the other 99% of American films that wave the flag and claim that our society has no real problems.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Boomerang! really jumps out at one — with the added contrast range and extra sharpness of HD, old B&W movies given quality transfers can really pop off the screen. Norbert Brodine’s location filming must really have made an impact on 1947 viewers accustomed to seeing the same old studio back lot street sets — the effect must have been instant realism.
Kino’s presentation includes two commentaries, one of which is older (before 2008) and a second that might be new. The older commentary is by the writing and research team of James Ursini and Alain Silver. These days Eddie Muller is the better-known celebrity noir authority, but Silver and Ursini have been on the noir case since the early 1970s. It was their excellent book that really got the ball rolling on noir studies in America, The Film Noir Encyclopedia. (Disclaimer: I proofread several early editions and contributed to one of the later editions). Their commentary has an academic but friendly air and is well informed about the specifics of Boomerang!’s source case. We learn that The Reader’s Digest used the original case as an exception to the rule that proves the superiority of the American system. Ursini and Silver critique the docu-noir format and marvel at the vivid depiction of an average town run by respected but corrupt civil servants. They broach the issue of police torture as well. The discussion of Elia Kazan is capped by explaining the basis for the director’s testimony to the HUAC inquisitors five years later, when he ratted on many of his closest associates to save his own career. Ursini even points out an actor in Boomerang!, Lewis Leverett, whose work in film was cut short by Kazan’s testimony.
The new commentary is by another worthy historian, Imogen Sara Smith. Her delivery is different and she approaches the material from some different angles, and there’s of course some repetition in her commentary. On it’s own it’s very good. I’d say try the first five minutes of each commentary before you choose which one to audit. An entire page listing Ms. Smith’s noir essays is at page called Moving Image Source.
Kino tacks on a stack of noir trailers as well. With titles from both MGM and Fox, the KL Studio Classics line now has an extensive collection of desirable noirs. But I wish they’d invest in English subtitling. Viewers without perfect hearing will have to stay with their DVD copies.
* Back in 1968 audience reaction cards for 2001: A Space Odyssey told Stanley Kubrick that some viewers didn’t realize that Dr. Floyd was headed to the moon, despite the fact that the film showed a huge image of the moon very clearly. Floyd never actually says he’s on his way to the moon, but he does say that he’s going to ‘Clavius.’ Apparently a goodly proportion of some audiences thought he was traveling to a planet called Clavius. Go Figure… maybe Kubrick lost them back at the beginning with the monkey men.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Boomerang! Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Two commentaries, both with film scholars: Alain Silver and James Ursini; and Imogen Sara Smith.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 12, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson