"...without question, the best director we have in America,
capable of performing miracles with the actors he uses."
Stanley Kubrick talking about fellow director Elia Kazan
It would be interesting for one particular reason to date that Kubrick quote (which I have, so far, failed to do). Was it said pre or post 1952? I suspect post as most of Kazan's creative triumphs were made after his divisive hearing at the Committee of the House of Un-American Activities or to give that ungainly mouthful its colloquial name, the McCarthy Witch Hunts. Read on for why that event is significant in promoting an appreciation of a great filmmaker's work. First though, I have a confession to make, a strangely apt phrase for this review. I just adore courtroom dramas. I have no idea what draws me to them but I think it must be the promise that, albeit tacitly, we are going to get to the truth (so... help me God) and getting to the truth is extremely satisfying if immoral and corrupt men (and very few women) get their comeuppance. When this movie dropped a cog into third gear at the end of the second act, I rubbed my hands together with glee. I knew what had to be done, had no idea how it was going to be done and the resolution was like Wembley with every blade of grass at the optimum height - pitch perfect. With a tiny caveat relating to the fate of the murderer (more the Hays Code's fault than the movie's), Boomerang! doesn't put a foot wrong and yes, the exclamation mark is part of the main title. That ambiguous title, I assume, comes from the idea that strongly held beliefs can be overcome against mounting evidence if you are a person of good conscience and willing to stick your neck out in defence of the truth, or at least something very much like that. It's open to numerous interpretations.
A homespun but reverential voiceover takes us to a Connecticut city like any other in the US at the end of WW2. A priest is singled out as a kindly, upstanding pillar of virtue and as he taps his pipe out on a lamp post and goes to step off the sidewalk, a man with a light fedora and dark overcoat moves in behind him and holding a pistol so it points down at the crown of the priest's head, shoots him and escapes through the dark streets. As the priest dies, six witnesses are identified and the state police are leant on to capture the killer quickly and close the case as soon as possible. Prefiguring The Wire's through-story of corruption during a mayoral contest, the case becomes a perverse pendulum of potential polarised outcomes. If the police blunder, the new man on the block will be elected to bring and indeed ring in the changes. If the case is solved, the incumbent will probably keep his position. It's all on the shoulders of district attorney, Henry L. Harvey, played with assured confidence and moral integrity by Dana Andrews. At first and somewhat ridiculously, all men with light hats and dark coats are rounded up (this is a real case so I assume the police actually did this). It's amusing to see a very young Arthur Miller - the playwright was working with Kazan at the time – briefly glimpsed in a police line up. Striking gold, the authorities bring in a young war veteran who not only owns the same kind of pistol that killed the priest but also lies under intense interrogation. A ballistics report seals his fate proving that the bullet was fired from his weapon. It's not going well for John (Arthur Kennedy) and Kennedy's performance is stunningly authentic. You are never under any doubt that this is a real man whose freedom has been savagely curtailed and something tells you that despite the lying and the intrigue, he's got to be innocent. In a semi-unconscious state, the psychiatrist plants suggestions in his sleep-deprived brain and barely conscious and disoriented, he signs a confession.
So, rallied against him are eyewitness statements, ballistics, lying to the police, a disgruntled ex-girlfriend and a confession. The man is so screwed, it's a shock his name isn't Phillips. But there are two men who are trying to keep the mayoral race out of their deductive reasoning, two men who feel, who intuit that something is not sitting right for their comfort; Andrews, whose turn around from prosecution to pre-trial defence, is (as far as I can tell) another 'boomerang' of the title and secondly there's police chief Robinson played by one of my favourite character actors, Lee J. Cobb. In Boomerang!, Cobb actually smiles twice and if that doesn't tell you how extraordinary this film is, then nothing will. Cobb will be known to audiences of my generation as Lt. Kinderman in The Exorcist. The role that flew him into my radar was the emotionally stricken father in Sidney Lumet's superb Twelve Angry Men. In that movie he starts cocksure, the voice of sanity and reason. At the end he is broken, revealing that his ingrained prejudice was deeply rooted in his failure as a father to a disgruntled son. As he forces out the words 'Not Guilty...' sobbing uncontrollably into the crook of his arm, he left an indelible impression. And that's from memory. It's funny the things that stick, the position of an actor's arm in a highly emotive scene in this case. In Boomerang!, despite the importance of the case, he quits over the political infighting, is persuaded to stay on by Andrews and both men acknowledge inside each other the same dogged determination to satisfy their doubts and get at the truth. There is an extraordinary but thrown away moment when Cobb picks up the exhausted Kennedy (as the notes suggest, in the style of Michelangelo's sculpture Pietà) and deposits him gently on the bunk bed. It's fair to say Cobb's character is somewhat conflicted in this movie.
It was also quite a lovely surprise to see Jane Wyatt (as Andrews' wife) in her bloom. To my generation, she is justly famous for being the mother of one of the most iconic characters in science fiction. She played Amanda, of course, Mr. Spock's mother in the original series of Star Trek and showed up in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Something was bugging me as I watched her in Boomerang!. She was young, sassy and svelte, the perfect wife for the morally unassailable Andrews. And then I remembered her soft but substantial delivery and the precise and beguiling cadence of her voice. It took me back to the 80s when she was mentoring her pointy-eared son at the start of his second life. Cara Williams convinces totally in the thankless role of the jilted girlfriend, Irene, a women prepared to have a man hanged for having the impertinence of finishing with her. Kazan favourite Karl Malden plays a detective with little to do but keep the town from lynching his suspect.
The noir aspects, save the rain sodden, slick, reflective streets, are all in place. Shadows abound, guns are drawn and corruption runs through the movie like oil in a V8. The commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini hammers home the documentary noir stylistics but as we are so used to location filming these days, it seems odd to keep throwing the word 'documentary' in when of course this movie is nothing of the sort. Yes, the screen is peppered with real people but that doesn't make it even tangentially relate to the genre of documentary. I suspect the term is used to denote a rougher style, an urgency you don't have foist upon your work toiling away in an overtly controlled environment like a studio. Kazan was very specific about finding his cinematic voice on the streets and not in a studio. That said, there's not a hand held shot in the picture...
No spoilers but I will say you will not finish the movie dissatisfied except perhaps for one small thing. Whether an outcome of the restrictive Hays Code of 1930 that forbade ridiculous examples of the 'usual suspects' of implied sex and violence, the film's coda ties up the case in a neat bow. This really wasn't necessary (particularly as the story was based on an unsolved case). It's hardly a gripe of substance but movies were held in a moral vice in that era, one that demanded justice be seen to be done even if it wasn't in reality. In the movies of this vintage, the bad guy always gets his comeuppance and its arbitrary nature reminded me strongly of the child murderer in Lovely Bones who's never caught but... I did say no spoilers.
Given the political leanings of this site, I felt that it's not right to review an Elia Kazan movie in hindsight without acknowledging his divisive role in HUAC (the House Committee on Un-American Activities). Yes, a body of work as impressive as Kazan's speaks for itself but, as Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars) stated emphatically in The Producers, "Hitler... there was a painter! He could paint an entire apartment in one afternoon! Two coats!" If the house looks great do we care that the painter went on to kill millions of people? Uh, well... That's up to you and your conscience. But if you are a filmmaker whose principal themes are honour and integrity (well, this movie's morals certainly are), it makes a difference to me that he didn't practice the same rigorous code of honour as a human being. We must also take into account the salient fact that I wasn't there and did not have contextual buoys in the sea of mistrust and own-skin-saving all rife at the time. It was on record that for a brief period in his twenties, Kazan was a member of the Communist Party but bowed out when Stalin and Hitler got friendly over the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 (I wiki so you don't have to). Since the cessation of hostilities in 1945, (HUAC was held in 1952) 'a Communist' was a Red under the bed. To the average American, he/she was a subversive character that, en masse, could rob America of its very soul (or 'capitalism' as it was and is known). The fear of the Russian threat would later reach a nuclear Def-Con 6 hysteria but in the 50s, Hollywood was pointedly under siege. Careers were curtailed and in some cases ended by the identification of those who had any affiliations with the Communist party. The blacklist, to me, seemed an unthinkable aspect of American culture, which of course was born from the contribution and integration of immigrants from all over the world. Frankly, in hindsight, the witch-hunt was a deplorable lapse in American values (I wonder why the US has always been so distrustful of the left?) On the face of it (a phrase implying a wealth of detail unknown to this writer) Kazan shopped friends and colleagues, names who were already known to the committee. Kazan said by way of defence that:
"I would rather do what I did than crawl in front of a ritualistic Left and lie the way those other comrades did, and betray my own soul. I didn't betray it. I made a difficult decision."
He was a genuine giant in the theatre and cinema and one of the pioneers of the method style of acting (James Dead, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift were early pupils). The Hobson's choice he was presented with and the one he made in 1952 made many distrustful of him. He obviously justified himself for the actions he took but as Gregory Peck said when the Academy honoured him with a fiercely contested Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990, "...a man's work should be separated from his life." Funny how firmly his decision to name names in 1952 stuck. As Arthur Miller said to Kazan before he faced the Committee, "Don't worry about what I'll think. Whatever you do is okay with me, because I know that your heart is in the right place." Kazan's subsequent actions drove a very wide wedge between the two great men. Miller chose not to reveal any names and was found in contempt of court and it took a few years for the government to get its head out of its ass and quash the whole ridiculous charade. But don't be put off by all this fuss over what was quite something at the time. Boomerang! is an excellent doco-noir melodrama with sincere and real performances and a knockout court scene finale.
Presented in 1.37:1, the quality of the image is good if not eye-popping. The contrast is okay but doesn't have the sharper bite a lot of black and white restorations can now boast on Blu-ray. There is very little damage, hardly any spots or sparkle so whoever did the clean up did a fine job.
The PCM Stereo track offers no separation (hardly surprising as its source was of course mono). There are subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Commentary by authors and film noir specialists, Alain Silver & James Ursini
This is a very solid commentary by two men who really know their subject. Always a plus. They both leave hardly any gaps and hold forth with a stream of fascinating detail. They emphasize the documentary and noir elements as well as isolating Kazan's developing visual style. They flag that in a short scene of manipulation, we intercut between shots of Dana Andrews and his two opposing politicos and both set-ups have wildly different lighting, a 'no-no' in traditional Hollywood at the time. I was also thrilled to know that every scene was shot on location – no studio work. Again, a movie made in 1947 with no studio shots? Unthinkable. If your goal is solid information and entertaining opinion, then this commentary is for you.
Trailer (2' 28”)
Now that's odd. If I'm not mistaken, the initial murder of the priest is shown in a wide shot from across the street as the trailer starts except for the fact this this angle was not used in the film. The same thing (from another angle) happens at about 1' 55" but this shot is from the reconstruction of the crime seen during the pre-trial (so the angle of the gun does not have to be completely consistent with the actual murder). There's a series of clips with wipes and a musical accompaniment and portraits of the main cast. Then there are a few sync snatches of dialogue and then the mute wipes start again. Atypical of its time, there is no optical titling which leads me to think that this is a early stage of the eventual trailer, one printed up sans titles. I really missed the cheesy hyperbole (the music was working hard to achieve this but without the titles, it had no chance). A curio, no question. Just checked and there is a TCM trailer out there entitled 'Textless' so it's not really the trailer at all... It's the equivalent of a car with no tyres... or a partially cooked meal.
Elia Kazan – An Outsider, 1982 (53' 14")
"I'm a mass of ambivalence, my friend..." Kazan says to interviewer Michel Ciment. He's not kidding. This is another Annie Tresgot directed 'director profile' helped considerably by Kazan's ease on camera. His evident wit and intelligence comes through and he is open and unapologetic about the HUAC enquiry. With relevant clips from the great man's oeuvre, it's a solid look at the director's life shot in 1982. The most surprising part of this Extra is a short interview with Robert De Niro, one in which the great actor comes across as disarming and (for him) ebullient. Famous for his intensely reserved appearances on TV ('reserved' in this sense meaning cripplingly shy), this is De Niro before he became 'Robert De Niro, The Greatest Living Screen Actor™' Yes, he falters and sometimes it seems as if he can't find the words but he seems to be relaxed nonetheless and that does surprise me. I've only seen him on camera unselfconscious when he made very, very insulting jokes at Muslims' expense on a post 9/11 Saturday Night Live. Ciment and Kazan visit relevant locations of course (the actual waterfront and the actors' studio to name two) but it was quite a bizarre coincidental surprise to hear that he always only ever wanted to be a writer and would be happy to carry on making a living doing just that. The coincidence is a personal one. I feel exactly the same way...
44 Page Booklet with a new essay by Glenn Kenny, Vintage interview material, the original article that inspired the film and rare behind-the-scenes shots
As ever with MoC, the booklet is a terrific addition to the package even if 90% of the stills are panoramic and force you to turn the booklet around to enjoy them. Why not make the whole booklet panoramic? Glenn Kenny's 2014 essay is a good primer for the movie and the context of its production. Kazan's own interview doesn't overlap with the Ciment film but allows the filmmaker to look back on what decisions he made and how much different those decisions would be if made at the time of the interview (1971). He mentions he would have had the attorney on the take too as corruption had become so rife in politics by then. The most fascinating entry for me is the original Rotarian magazine story reprinted abridged in the Reader's Digest that caught Kazan's eye - Anthony Abbot's 'A Perfect Case' on which the movie was based. The real case (which took place in 1924) has even more unbelievable evidence against the accused but the essentials are in place. Absolutely fascinating. Finally and with trivia very much in mind, as a young man in the many revealing stills, Kazan looks alarmingly like ex-journalist and cultural commentator Bernard Levin. I think it's the hair.
Boomerang! is a really solid melodrama made before famed director Elia Kazan came into his own as an exemplary 'actor's director'. It's only his third film but feels incredibly assured. The script is spot on and the film is sprinkled with many idiosyncratic but entertaining and remarkable moments. Overall, it's bolstered by very convincing performances and the final court scene is a joy. Recommended.