Elia Kazan remains one of the of the most notable and accomplished of American auteurs, whose post-WWII informed filmography provided the framework for fluctuating representation of masculinity as well as a platform for the method school of acting, directing names like Marlon Brando and James Dean in some of their most iconic portrayals of the brooding, bruised American male psyche. Despite his unfortunate choices during his testimony as a witness in front of 1952’s HUAC during Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt, Kazan left an indelible mark on cinema, particularly in his most prolific decade, the 1950s. Often tackling topical material meant to examine contemporary social dilemmas, like 1949’s Pinky or the unforgettable On the Waterfront (1954), Kazan’s debut was an adaptation of Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for James Dunn. But 1947 saw Kazan release three films, the most famous being Best Picture (and Director) winner Gentleman’s Agreement, a still prescient examination of anti-Semitism. The same year, he’d compete in the Cannes Film Festival with sophomore film Boomerang! (the year’s line-up saw quite a few American auteurs competing with now famous noir titles, including the likes of Arthur Ripley, Edward Dmytryk, Lewis Milestone, and Curtis Bernhardt), one of a couple criminal justice melodramas from Kazan since re-categorized as noir. Mostly a courtroom drama procedural, this Dana Andrews headliner details the true story of an innocent man accused of viciously shooting a priest and the prosecutor who crusades against the pillars of the community to prove his innocence.
Based on the true account of the shooting of a Protesant priest in 1924 Bridgeport, Connecticut, this rendition focuses on the extreme political pressure placed on community leaders to find a scapegoat. Unfortunately, the investigation occurs during a critical election year, which causes a dangerous ripple effect amongst those with special interests riding on the results. A man who had already drifted out of town (Arthur Kennedy) is arrested under suspicion of vagrancy is identified in a line-up by several witnesses who’d been in close proximity to the murder. Tired and frustrated, the police chief (Lee J. Cobb) interrogates the suspect mercilessly, resulting in a confession. But prosecuting state’s attorney Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews) isn’t convinced this man is the guilty party, and his efforts to get to the bottom of this case enrage local politicians, such as Paul Harris (Ed Begley). Meanwhile, the owner of local newspaper “The Record” (Sam Levene) further exploits the situation for his own business purposes.
The problem with Boomerang! is how old-fashioned and insistently sincere it feels. This is a genre re-popularized for every cinematic generation, whether ripped form the headlines or fictitious, and as such is more a film about injustice than the shadowy morals of the American underbelly characterized in noir. Dana Andrews headlined quite a few popular noirs for top auteurs, usually for Otto Preminger (Laura; Fallen Angel; Where the Sidewalk Ends), and a pair of Fritz Lang efforts from the 50s (When the City Sleeps; Beyond a Reasonable Doubt). Gruff but likeable, Andrews was a quintessential everyman (which resulted in a notable lack of awards recognition in a five decade career) and his efforts to do the right thing in Boomerang!, despite the man hired to do the opposite job, results in a believably noble performance with a rather anti-climactic courtroom finale. The most archaic flourish is Kazan’s use of omniscient narration from Reed Hadley, a structure which would similarly dampen the legacy of the disease/plague noir Panic in the Streets a few years later.
Andrews is surrounded by a notable but meekly administered supporting cast, including Arthur Kennedy as the accused. He’s outshone by the angry woman whose advances he spurned, played by a seething Cara Williams, who is also quite a bit more memorable than the film’s other female lead, a boredom inducing Jane Wyatt as Andrews’ fashionably supportive wife. More entertaining are supporting turns from Lee J. Cobb as the frustrated chief of police, and the usually vibrant Ed Begley as a corrupt politician. Karl Malden shows up briefly in one of his first screen appearances as an uncredited detective. Scribe Richard Murphy (who also penned Panic in the Streets and the meatier Leopold and Loeb treatment Compulsion for Richard Fleischer) adapts from a 1945 Reader’s Digest article, and the film’s positive depiction of a flawed justice system results in an aftertaste a bit hoarier than hooray.
Kino Lorber releases Boomerang! on Blu-ray with several other notable auteur helmed film noirs under their Studio Classics label. Presented in 1.33:1, picture and sound quality are serviceable, although DP Norbert Brodine manages a look which feels as equally generic as the film’s tone (as compared to more famous noir titles he contributed to, such as Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death and Jules Dassin’s Thieves’ Highway). Audio commentary tracks from film noir historian Imogen Sara Smith and a separate optional commentary track from film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini are also available on the disc.
Fans of Kazan or star Dana Andrews will most likely appreciate Boomerang!, an otherwise middlebrow exploration of corruption in the criminal justice system.
Film Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆