Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Richard Murphy
Based on an Article by: Fulton Oursler
Starring: Dana Andrews, Jane Wyatt, Lee J. Cobb, Arthur Kennedy
Producer: Louis De Rochemont
Running Time: 88 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Elia Kazan is a fascinating figure in the history of American cinema. Not only did he direct a number of cast iron classics such as On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, but he was pivotal in bringing method acting to American cinema through his co-founding of The Actors Studio. His films made stars out of James Dean and Marlon Brando among others and he made powerful, socially conscious films, which were rare at the time in Hollywood.
However, his career is often overshadowed by the fact that in 1952 he testified to the HUAC (House Committee on Un-American Activities), naming a number of colleagues and friends as being Communists. Kazan was open about being a member of the Communist party earlier in his life, but had left, so he came to the HUAC as a “friendly witness”. His reasons for doing so aren’t perfectly clear, but it clearly tarnished his reputation amongst a number of his contemporaries. Even though every name he gave was already known to the Committee it was still seen as unforgivable to many and, close to 50 years later in 1999, when Kazan was given an honorary Oscar at that year’s Academy Awards, a notable portion of the audience still refused to applaud, let alone give him a standing ovation.
This didn’t stop him making some of the most famous and critically acclaimed films of his career following this event though. I must admit I’ve only seen On the Waterfront before now. I’m a big fan of that film though so I was keen to check out Boomerang!, an early noir-tinged courtroom drama from Kazan, which is being re-released as part of Eureka’s superb Masters of Cinema collection.
Boomerang! is a kind of docudrama, recreating a crime and ensuing court case in Connecticut where a priest was shot and killed in the street one night. The priest was well loved in the community so the locals set out for blood. Despite there being a number of witnesses to the crime, the police are struggling to find the killer though. With an up-coming election on their minds, the local government try to hurry the process as they’re getting trampled on by the press and their rivals, claiming incompetence. When a prime suspect is found in John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy) and the witnesses seem sure he’s the one, the local administration are delighted. They butter up State’s Attorney Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews) to get the job done and dusted as quick as possible. Harvey is all set to do so, but when he speaks to Waldron he begins to think the man may be innocent after all, so sets out to make sure true justice is done.
The film opens with a statement claiming that it is based on an actual incident in a small town in Connecticut and that original locations were used and actual characters are involved whenever possible. According to the commentary included with the film, that’s not strictly true. It was actually shot in a different Connecticut town and although local people are used in small cameos, they aren’t from the actual community where the crime took place. But nevertheless, it’s admirable to see a film of the period trying its best to stick close to the truth and create a less glamorous or sugar coated view of crime and the legal system.
It goes beyond just the superficial level of shooting on locations to achieve this too. The real villains of the piece become the corrupt politicians and local business men. In fact (and this is a spoiler), the film doesn’t end with the catching of the real criminal, the true crime remained unsolved (although here the identity of the murderer is visually suggested and they are shown to receive a kind of justice). Instead the film climaxes with our hero standing up against bribery and corruption to stop an innocent man going to prison or worse.
It has been suggested by even Kazan himself (supposedly) that more time could have been spent on the local corruption angle though and I’d agree with that. A twist comes late on in the film where a local business man comes clean about his motives for getting Waldron convicted and this is a real eye-opener, leading to a grisly end to the thread, but I couldn’t help but feel more could have made of it.
Another criticism I would have is with the documentary style framing devices which come at the end and middle of the film. A rather dated characterless voiceover sets the scene and explains some of the legal proceedings later on and these elements haven’t aged nearly as well as the bulk of the drama. The first 10 minutes in particular are pretty clunky and set the film off to a rocky start. Some ropey extras (perhaps some of the local people the opening statement mentioned) are largely to blame too, as they key players don’t make a full appearance until after this section.
Once these key players enter the scene, Kazan shows his talents at casting and directing actors though. Andrews didn’t blow me away at first in the lead, I found him a little uncharismatic, but as the film moved on and particularly in the court room scenes, his character began to give much more of an impact. One of the great character actors of the era (and beyond) gave my favourite performance though. Lee J. Cobb features as ‘Robbie’, the chief of police, and is full of hard talking bitterness. Cobb is one of those actors who looks familiar and pops up in a number of classic films, but doesn’t always get the recognition he deserves. He was nominated for two Best Supporting Actor Oscars for his roles in On the Waterfront and The Brothers Karamazov but he never won and never (to my knowledge) got the chance to have a great leading role.
All in all it’s probably not upper echelon Kazan then, but it demonstrates his talents early on in his film career (he had been very successful in theatre before this). In looking at various aspects of corruption and the muddy waters of small town politics, it’s a meatier and more socially conscious film than most of its peers so can be seen as a fairly groundbreaking and influential piece. You can certainly still see aspects of it in today’s political thrillers and courtroom dramas, even if a few elements are rather dated and it could have pushed some of the more intriguing plot-lines a little further.
Boomerang! is out on 26th May in the UK on Dual Format Blu-Ray and DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. I watched the Blu-Ray version and the picture quality was decent. It maybe doesn’t reach the heights of some of Eureka’s transfers, with night scenes lacking a bit of detail and some very slight damage and flicker appearing from time to time, but it’s still streets ahead of the usual treatment classics get from the big studios. Audio seems strong enough, I didn’t notice any issues.
There are two special features included (as well as the customary trailer). One is a 53 min documentary called Elia Kazan: An Outsider from 1982. This is excellent, made up of a lengthy series of very personal interviews with the director. He opens up about his personal life, his work on stage and screen (including his co-founding of the Actors Studio and his development of method acting) as well as his infamous testimony to the HUAC during the McCarthy “witch-hunts”.
The second special feature is an audio commentary from film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini. This is also very interesting and having the two of them speaking together keeps the energy and pace going, so you get plenty of well researched history and critique without losing steam.
Also included is the usual booklet looking further in depth into the film, to help add to a fantastic package for a decent early film from a great director.
The original theatrical trailer: