Saturday Night Cinema: Boomerang! (1947)


I chased down something very special for my GR cinephiles. Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic is Boomerang. Directed by my favorite director, the peerless Elia Kazan, and starring another Geller personal fave, Dana Andrews (Laura, Best Years of Our Lives, Ox-Bow Incident), it’s the true story of a prosecutor’s fight to prove the innocence of a man accused of a notorious murder.

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Filmed as if it were a documentary, this gripping film noir was considered a shocker in its day because it centered on the murder of a priest and for its presentation of the corruption and illicit shenanigans that can be found in a “typical” American small town.

Circles and lines: It opens with a 360° pan in downtown Stamford, Connecticut, then sketches the killer as a disembodied hand and revolver entering the frame at a jagged slant. The victim is the beloved town pastor (Wyrley Birch), the ensuing police manhunt and “political three-ring circus” proceed with cutaways to tangible location photography in neighborhood porches, pool halls, a bridge party at a fire station. The blend of stylization and faux-documentary reportage shows Elia Kazan’s understanding of the true innovations of Italian neo-realism, he has bigger fish to fry than merely illustrating a Reader’s Digest article. The fellow snagged in the whirlwind of public outrage and media scorn is a drifting WWII vet (Arthur Kennedy), who signs a confession after a few sleepless days under the police station’s interrogation light. A conviction would pave the way to the governor’s office for the State Attorney (Dana Andrews), who sees the whole thing as “close to a perfect case.” Doubt crosses the prosecutor’s mind after he sees the accused face to face, and, despite protests from his own party, he steps into the courtroom to demolish the witnesses and invalidate the evidence. The indirect model for Kazan’s “lesson in trial procedure” is Young Mr. Lincoln, the lynch mob waiting outside the jailhouse is adduced even as Ford’s mythical vision yields to the unease of postwar film noir. Jane Wyatt’s versatile docility as Andrews’s wife (she can serve milk and beer) coexists with the profuse sweating of Ed Begley, a disturbed momma’s boy full of unmentionable sins (Philip Coolidge) is offered as the real culprit for a hint of divine law. The best work is done against the grain of Louis de Rochemont’s newsreel tidiness, with biting rousers like Lee J. Cobb and Sam Levene punching through the gray veneer. Kennedy’s final walk out the courthouse gates illustrates the very young Godard’s description of Kazan’s early filmmaking, “an accentuation of the phenomenon of the proscenium.” With Karl Malden, Cara Williams, Taylor Holmes, and Robert Keith. In black and white.


The New York Times: Bosley Crowther wrote of the film, “Movie-makers should positively remember that a public story is a public trust.”  Newspapers should remember that too, Mr. Crowther.

‘ Boomerang!’ a Factual-Style Film of Connecticut Slaying, Opens at the Roxy Theatre– Dana Andrews Heads the Cast

Published: March 6, 1947

Producer Louis de Rochemont, who has distinguished himself in Hollywood by employing the “March of Time technique” in filming dramas based on actual events (as witness his “House on Ninety-second Street” and “13 Rue Madeleine,” has now used this realistic method to tell the story of a celebrated murder case—or a modernized image of it—in his latest film, “Boomerang!” And, to give this new picture at the Roxy its full theatrical due, we must say that this style of presentation has resulted in a drama of rare clarity and punch.

For Mr. de Rochemont and his craftsmen, working for Twentieth Century-Fox, have eschewed the stale patterns and photography of conventional cops-and-courtroom films. They have put together a screen play which has the dispassion of a good journalist’s report and they have filmed it with the steady observation of a newspaper cameraman. They have used an unseen narrator to describe many of the comprehensive scenes, inter-cut with the realistic dialogue, thus achieving, a news-view effect. And, to heighten the illusion of actuality, they have photographed most of it in legitimate communities adjacent to that in which the basic case occurred. (That was Bridgeport, Conn., but for reasons of diplomacy, it was thought advisable to film the picture in Stamford, Conn., and White Plains, N. Y.)

Actually, the basis of the story was the murder of a priest which occurred on a busy street corner in Bridgeport on a night in 1924. The murderer escaped and no suspect or motive was immediately adduced, but eventually the police nabbed a young man against whom a circumstantial case was built up. When the case came to trial, however, the State’s attorney, who was Homer S. Cummings at that time, sprang a shattering surprise by contending that the police evidence was unsound. And, with an eloquent deference to justice and an array of explosive facts, he argued against his own case and obtained the defendant’s release.

While the film carefully garbles true identities—until it cites Mr. Cummings at the end—and only distinguishes the community as a “small city in Connecticut,” it follows very closely the details of this extraordinary case, with a few questionable omissions and fabrications which mainly make it seem recent. It apparently re-enacts precisely the commission of the crime, the shock that it caused the community and the consequent state of alarm. Then it brings in the concept that local politics became involved and that the public clamor for a scapegoat compelled an arrest and a trial.

At this point the dramatist’s prerogative to build his own case is exercised and the film opens up as a comment upon social justice and the integrity of one man. A truly tormenting representation of the grilling of the suspect is played and the fatality of an individual overwhelmed by trumped-up evidence is implied. And then the contrary logic of a young State’s attorney is brought to play, counterpointed by doubts and temptations interposed by low politics. In a fine and suspenseful court room drama, the issue, however, is resolved and the triumph of unconventional justice over blind and willful subterfuge is shown.

In the fluid performance of this story, Dana Andrews does another sensitive job as the tortured but steadfast State’s attorney, and Arthur Kennedy is convincingly distraught as the suspect tagged for slaughter, especially in the third-degree sequence. Lee Cobb broods in dark and towering silence as the badgered chief of police and Sam Levene is amusingly volcanic as a wised-up newspaper man. A dozen other actors, few of them familiar to the screen, do competently by small-town characters under the sharp direction of Elia Kazan.

Indeed, as a piece of melodrama with human and social overtones, there is nothing theatrically faulty about Mr. de Rochemont’s “Boomerang-!” It is only in its implications that it re-enacts an actual case and that the hero, as stated at the finish, is Homer S. Cummings’ facsimile that violence is done to propriety. By making this circumstantial claim, “Boomerang!’ is as guilty of presumption as the evidence-rigging villains in the piece. For, aside from the obvious rearrangement of certain facts and suggestions in the case, it is plain that this hero is no parallel to Mr. Cummings at the time of the trial. Mr. Cummings was then a national figure, with imposing authority and prestige, (He was not yet Attorney General, but he was high in political affairs.) The hero of “Boomerang!” is a small-fry with a whole career to make. There is a decided difference and it cannot be lightly dismissed. At least, it cannot in a picture which pretends to be a document of facts. Movie-makers should positively remember that a public story is a public trust.

On the stage at the Roxy are Katherine Dunham and her dancers, Ernesto Lecuona, Phil Regan and Sid Caesar in an all-star revue with Ed Sullivan acting as m. c.
BOOMERANG!, screen play by Richard Murphy, based on a magazine article by Anthony Abbot; directed by Elia Kazan; produced by Louis de Rochemont for Twentieth Century-Fox. At the Roxy.
Henry L. Harvey . . . . . Dana Andrews
Mrs. Harvey . . . . . Jane Wyatt
Chief Robinson . . . . . Lee J. Cobb
Irene Nelson . . . . . Cara Williams
John Waldron . . . . . Arthur Kennedy
Woods . . . . . Sam Levene
Wade . . . . . Taylor Holmes
McCreery . . . . . Robert Kieth
Harris . . . . . Ed Begley
Mrs. Crossman . . . . . Leona Roberts
Crossman . . . . . Philip Coolidge
Cary . . . . . Lester Lonergan
Whitney . . . . . Lewis Leverett
Sgt. Dugan . . . . . Barry Kelley
Mr. Rogers . . . . . Richard Garrick
Lieut. White . . . . . Karl Malden
James . . . . . Ben Lackland
Annie . . . . . Helen Carew
Father Lambert . . . . . Wyrley Birch
Rev. Gardiner . . . . . Johnny Stearns
Cartucci . . . . . Guy Thomasjan
Mrs. Lukash . . . . . Lucia Seger
Dr. Rainsford . . . . . Dudley Sadler
Mayor Swayze . . . . . Walter Greaza
Miss Manton . . . . . Helen Hatch
Mr. Lukash . . . . . Joe Kazan

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