Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Boomerang! was partly released and then pulled in 2006; the Fox Film Noir disc release was set and review copies already distributed when the studio suddenly yanked the title from its schedule. Two years have passed, but only now has the legal knot that precipitated the recall finally loosened up. Many retail copies of the disc have apparently found their way into private hands anyway; Savant got his thanks to a generous reader who found that his local Borders store had been shipped several copies.
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 protect a defendant from over-zealous prosecution even when circumstantial evidence is against him. On the other hand, writer Richard Murphy's portrait of what narrator Reed Hadley calls a 'typical American town' uncovers political corruption, abuse of authority and a vicious vigilante streak. The movie is based on a real unsolved case from the 1930s. Producer Louis de Rochemont filmed it entirely on location, a real novelty for 1947.
Bridgeport, Connecticut is turned upside-down when a beloved priest is murdered on the street in cold blood. With no suspect in custody, the out-of-office political machine campaigns to link the unsolved crime to the 'incompetence' of the current occupiers 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) is too smart to choose sides and prefers to find out what's happening behind the scenes. Police Chief "Robbie" Robinson (Lee J. Cobb) wants to quit, while State's Attorney Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews) calms his Reform Party friends, especially Paul Harris, the Commissioner of Public Works (Ed Begley). Harvey concedes that the bad publicity could end his career as well, but he gets 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) identify drifter John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy) as being at the scene of the crime. Waldron carries the right kind of gun, and the police lab reports 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 convinced that Waldron is innocent. Harvey's own party thinks he's defected to T.M. Wade's camp, Robinson calls him a 'dirty politician' and Commissioner Harris -- who has an underhanded real estate deal pending that depends on the Reform Party's victory -- threatens Harvey not to allow Waldron to go free.
Boomerang! begins with a voice claiming that the story is documented fact, and then fashions 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 punishes him with an Act of God. The screenwriters choose and condemn their own 'suspect', which goes against the spirit of justice. The State of Connecticut chose not to prosecute "John Waldron", but that doesn't mean he wasn't the killer.
The script points to the disturbed Crossman (Philip Coolidge of The Tingler) as the guilty party, but Boomerang! prefers to focus on the balance of political power in Bridgeport. We understand clearly that the opposition party is using its newspaper to attack the so-called Reform administration downtown. We also realize that Ed Begley's Paul Harris has wrongly used his office for personal profit in a rigged real estate deal. The way the Reform Party cronies are frantic to railroad a conviction for John Waldron, we suspect that they may have more 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 extraction of a confession from Waldron.
Beating information out of prisoners was not uncommon in 1947 police departments. We even hear Chief Robinson decide not to use that option in Waldron's case. He instead uses 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 politically expedient to presume the man guilty and close the book. The public doesn't care, as seen in the eyes of the witnesses happy to condemn whatever man the police choose, and in the vigilantes that attempt to lynch Waldron on his way to a hearing. And Boomerang! is meant to be a celebration of American virtues!
At the center of the drama is State's Attorney Henry Harvey. As he's played by Dana Andrews we know he'll stand up for what's right, and he indeed resists the arm-twisting of the City Hall cronies who got him his job. The movie shows Harvey's home life with Jane Wyatt's Madge to be ideal, even when Nancy reveals that she has money invested with Paul Harris in the crooked real estate deal. Madge's act is never acknowledged as anything but an honest mistake, but their marriage seems based on not facing unpleasant realities, like their inability to have children. At one point Henry asks Madge if she's willing to lose their upscale lifestyle and, "go back to like it was in college." Madge's unruffled 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 his highly theatrical courtroom stunt. "Justice" may prevail, but Harvey's main achievement has been to secure the Reform Party's hold on the mayor's office. 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 property belonging to the Harris-owned Sunset Realty. They aren't sharing that information. It's a 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. Meanwhile, the future wife of Father Knows Best gets off Scot-free with the rest of the Reform Party cronies because she's 'respectable.'
I have a feeling that one reason Elia Kazan dismissed his film as an 'exercise' was because he hadn't communicated his subversive message as well as he would have wished. With its political corruption, vigilantes and corner-cutting police force, Boomerang! is a rebuttal to the other 99% of American films that wave the flag and claim that our society has no real problems.
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) and Edgar Stehli as the coroner. The elderly witness to the killing is Joe Kazan, the real 'Uncle Joe' whose emigration from Turkey was dramatized in Kazan's movie America, America. Looking for another face to play one of the many luckless men in a police lineup, Kazan used the playwright Arthur Miller!
Fox's DVD of Boomerang! finally becomes available widely, and will perhaps put an end to steep internet auction prices. The handsome B&W transfer has no flaws. The disc comes with a trailer and a gallery of stills & graphics.
The terrific extra is a commentary by James Ursini and Alain Silver, whose analyses of film noir classics keep getting better. Besides uncovering the facts of Boomerang!'s source case (The Reader's Digest used it as an 'exception that proves the rule' that the American system is flawless), 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, and cap their discussion of Elia Kazan by explaining the basis for the director's naming names 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.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Commentary with Alain Silver and James Ursini; still and poster gallery, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 31, 2008
Savant gratefully thanks reader Kevin Mummery for his help on securing an early copy of Boomerang. Revised from an April 1, 2007 review.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson