Elia Kazan, 1947
Starring: Dana Andrews, Jane Wyatt, Lee J. Cobb
After a beloved minister is shot right out on the street in a small Connecticut town, a man hunt begins for his murderer. The local government is under political pressure to find the culprit as soon as possible, and an unemployed former soldier becomes the main suspect. Though he protests his innocence, he is deprived of sleep and subjected to hours of rigorous interrogation until he admits his guilt out of exhaustion. Henry Harvey, a local prosecutor, sees through this scheme and runs his own investigation, much to everyone’s dismay. It seems that during the trial, Harvey will shockingly attempt to prove the soldier’s innocence – even though the threat of blackmail and possibly violence looms in the background.
Based on an actual Connecticut murder and subsequent trial in 1924 Connecticut, director Elia Kazan brings an influential element of realism to the proceedings, shooting on location in Connecticut as much as possible. This combination of film noir, documentary, and court-room drama was based on a short story by Fulton Oursler, but concerns a chapter from the real life of Horner Cummings, then an assistant District Attorney, but later Attorney General of the U.S. Dana Andrews’ character, Henry Harvey, is based directly on Cummings and is actually my biggest complaint with the film. Andrews’ Henry Harvey is simply too heroic to be believable, particularly considering that I watched this film fresh off a marathon of Fritz Lang film noir works, where no protagonist is truly heroic or guilt-free (and Andrews stars in While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt).
Harvey is an assured, confident character. There is never any doubt that he will clear the soldier and will not succumb to bribes or violence. He is simply too squeaky clean to be believable, particularly during the noir period, and the lack of doubt or realism that surrounds his character is frustrating. Much like Glenn Ford’s wife in Lang’s The Big Heat, Jane Wyatt is also simply too supportive and wholesome as Harvey’s charming, lovely, and thoroughly middle-class wife.
It’s difficult to say whether Boomerang actually counts as film noir. There’s a surprisingly violent beginning where a religious figure (I believe he’s a minister, not a Catholic priest) is shot, point blank, in the back of the head. Characters throughout the film are almost casually corrupt, as if a state of corruption is not a criminal act, but a part of everyday life. The mob justice present here is not of the sort Fritz Lang regularly explored in his films. Rather this is a balance between citizens unhappy with their local government and everyone’s efforts to bring to justice the murderer of a beloved social figure. The film essentially explains away the corruption and hysteria by excusing and equalizing everything.
Though this is an early example of docu-drama and introduces realism that Kazan would continue throughout his career, I don’t think it’s actually fair to call it film noir. It lacks a number of critical elements, namely a sense of doomed fatalism. Harvey himself is a sort of deus-ex-machina, someone who is mystically able to see through the lies everyone else believes or insists are true. In every way, he is the antithesis of a noir protagonist, though a different director would have used this to their advantage (as Lang does in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt). Harvey uses his oratory power as the assistant district attorney to lead the community towards the truth. He points out their own flaws and complicity without leading them to tragedy, though he makes a number of ridiculous, implausible cases.
It’s necessary, for a moment, to compare Boomerang to Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, as the two films are almost suspiciously similar. Boomerang was released almost a decade before Lang’s film and I can’t help but feel that Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was influenced by it. Both concern a murder (a priest in Boomerang, a nightclub dancer in Beyond) and an innocent man wrongly convicted. In both films, Andrews plays a character out to right the wrongs in the justice system. In Boomerang, he plays the up-and-coming attorney who has a chance at a governorship if he plays his cards right. In Beyond, he plays an up-and-coming writer about to marry into a newspaper publisher’s family, but first he and publisher conceive a plan to cook up his wrongful conviction and then lambast the death penalty. As the attorney, Andrews is untarnished and incorruptible, but implausibly so. In Beyond, it is revealed that he has actually been the murderer all along.
Perhaps it speaks more to my personality than to the quality of either film that I prefer the bleaker fare of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. It can’t be denied that Kazan was a powerful, talented filmmaker, regardless of his deplorable politics. Boomerang, however, was a precursor to the success of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), or East of Eden (1955). Curiously, many of his films (including Pinky and Gentleman’s Agreement) are about characters determined to tell the truth, to uncover injustice, and right wrongs accepted by the rest of society regardless of the cost. This is perhaps a response to the backlash against his testimony damning fellow filmmakers during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and at minimum provides a glimpse into how Kazan likely saw himself.
Though Boomerang goes off the rails in the second act and becomes patently absurd, it’s worth seeing. Aside from being influential and an interesting stepping stone in Kazan’s career, the large cast is dependable. In addition to Andrews, who I can never find fault with, there are notable performances from Arthur Kennedy as John Waldron, the suspect, Sam Levene as a canny reporter, and the always delightful Lee J. Cobb is the gruff, grim chief of police. Boomerang is available on Blu-ray.