A Catholic priest is murdered in a small Connecticut town. A local drifter is picked up for the crime and charged. The state’s Attorney, however, begins to believe that an innocent man is being prosecuted and, in spite of his ambition to be Governor, as well as other political pressures, he proceeds in court accordingly. Based on a true story.
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Boomerang is often described as film noir, but to fans of the genre it may be somewhat misleading to put this film into that category. In fact, while it has elements of noir, particularly a concern for rampant corruption lying just beneath the thin veneer of a civilized society, as well as some stark “city at night” cinematography, this crime drama is really a vehicle for a young Elia Kazan to begin to express his own social and political concerns.
Kazan had already made, “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” and “Sea of Grass”, a beloved novel and a studio vehicle for big stars, respectively, and both requiring a certain amount of subservience on the director’s part to artistic visions other than his own. Thus, he considered Boomerang a breakthrough to his own style of filmmaking. What he hit upon to tell this story from a fresh perspective was a combination of film noir and documentary styles. On one level it is a straightforward depiction of a murder and its legal aftermath in small town post-war America, but Kazan, who was a product of the New York theatre community, specifically the politically charged Group Theatre, wanted to create something different from the usual studio fare.
He was particularly concerned with bringing a new naturalism to acting, and was apparently disappointed by the two leads he has here, Dana Andrews, who plays the state’s attorney, and Jane Wyatt. Indeed it does seem at times as though you’re watching two movies. In the domestic scenes, Andrews and Wyatt, who play husband and wife, could be acting in any number of Hollywood films, or later TV shows. It’s a somewhat generic form of acting - tough, earnest attorney and his sweet, concerned wife. However, in the street scenes, the court room and particularly the interrogation room, Kazan is working with actors from the New York stage with whom he is very familiar. Lee J. Cobb, as the hardened police detective in charge of the case and Karl Malden, as a young cop, were both working with Kazan, simultaneous to this film, on Broadway in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. Kazan would also work with Arthur Kennedy, who plays the suspect, and Cobb soon after in the Broadway production of Miller’s Death of a Salesman. They were all committed to a new psychological realism that was pervading post-war American drama, and would culminate in much of Kazan’s later work with Marlon Brando, especially “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On The Waterfront”.
As Kazan was not interested in star acting, it’s the story, with its political overtones of a rush to judgment of an innocent man by a self-serving political and judicial elite and a panicked public, that clearly engages him. In this case, it is a true crime story based on an actual murder case that took place in Bridgeport, CT in the 1920s. The filmmaker got as close as he possibly could to the real location, shooting entirely in the town of Stamford, CT, while updating the period. As well, the documentary feel is extended throughout the film by a male voice over narration who, as the film opens, speaks comfortingly of small town American life, lulling the viewer, while patriotic music plays quietly in the background. However as the story progresses, the narrator gives increasing voice to Kazan’s social concerns. This monologue regarding the dangers of public hysteria in the midst of a heated investigation is especially forceful:
“... angry men, indignant men, beaten men, and dazed men; men with long criminal records, and simple men snatched from peaceful pursuits, all to be shoved into the glare of the line up platform, scrutinized, questioned and released in the forlorn hope that one, just one in all these hundreds might be the man they sought.”
This speech comes on top of a terrific montage of local men being rounded up and photographed for mug shots. Kazan used non-actors here and throughout much of the film, showing local people’s daily lives and reactions to the sensational murder case. In addition, he lights them using what looks like available light, as much as possible. In this way as well, the film distinguishes itself from the studio bound films of the era. There is no “star lighting” for any of the actors, even the stars.
Finally, the concern with corruption at almost every level is a constant theme throughout the film. Almost everyone involved, with the exception of the dead priest, has an agenda they are pushing. Everything, from the greed of local politics, to yellow journalism whipping up popular emotions, seems to be working toward railroading the state’s attorney’s into prosecuting an innocent man for a crime he didn’t commit.
At just under 90 minutes, this is a smart, intense telling of a familiar story that still feels original due to the director’s determination to rethink the assumptions of the industry in which he was working.