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Elia Kazan has long been lionized for ushering in a grittier, more realistic form of Hollywood filmmaking through such classic pictures as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954). But most movie buffs aren't aware that Kazan himself considered a little film noir called Boomerang (1947) to be his breakthrough film.
Boomerang opens with the shocking murder of an elderly priest (Wyrley Birch) as he takes an after-dinner stroll through his neighborhood, greeting members of his community. The local police soon arrest a local vagrant (Arthur Kennedy), and the public attorney, Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews), is called in to convict him and throw him in jail. Even though the vagrant is coerced into a confession, Harvey feels he's innocent. This leads to Harvey launching a private investigation that could mean the end of his political aspirations.
Boomerang's plot is based on the real-life February 4, 1924 murder of a Catholic priest, Father Hubert Dahme, although the killing happened in Bridgeport, Ct., rather than Stamford, where the movie is set; Stamford was pragmatically substituted because the town of Bridgeport wouldn't issue permits for filming. The real-life Connecticut Attorney General who saved a drifter named Harold Israel from execution was Homer Cummings, who was later selected as U.S. Attorney General under Franklin D. Roosevelt. The only participant in the actual case who objected to the film was a waitress (played by Cara Williams in Kazan's version) who successfully sued 20th Century Fox for libel. She received a whopping $1,200 for her trouble.
Kazan wasn't particularly interested in the narrative, although he handles it effectively throughout the picture. He was more concerned with finding a way to bring documentary techniques to traditional Hollywood filmmaking, and Boomerang's producer, Louis de Rochemont, was the perfect collaborator for such an experiment. De Rochemont was the man behind the March of Time newsreel series, so he knew a thing or two about shooting on-the-run. He gave Kazan a great deal of freedom with his camera, turning what could have been an everyday whodunit into something of a benchmark in movie history.
Still, Kazan wasn't completely happy with the film's performances. "Unfortunately," he said during an interview in the 1970s, "a lot of Boomerang is the same studio machinery - brought outdoors. Most of the actors were stage actors, like Jane Wyatt. She plays an oversweet version of what a wife should be. Dana Andrews was actorish. He was not like a real lawyer, right?"
Later in the same interview, he revealed quite a bit of frustration with Andrews. "There was very little you could do with Dana," he said. "He could learn three pages in five minutes. He had a fantastic memory, even though he'd been up late drinking the night before. He'd come to work, dress up, and we'd roll him out. His style was okay in the movie, because he was playing a lawyer, and essentially there wasn't supposed to be too much going on inside of him. But unfortunately that kind of acting leaves you with the feeling that there was nothing really personal at stake."
Kazan would have the type of film actor he was looking for four years later when he directed Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. Yet even with the director's reservations, Boomerang is still an engrossing picture that hits harder and moves faster than most from the period.
Most of the mainstream critics seemed to agree with the Variety review articulating the majority view: "Boomerang! is gripping, real-life melodrama, told in semi-documentary style...All the leads have the stamp of authenticities. The dialog and situations further the factual technique. Lee J. Cobb shows up strongly as chief detective, harassed by press and politicians alike while trying to carry out his duties. Arthur Kennedy is great as the law's suspect."
Kazan was voted Best Director for Boomerang by both the National Board of Review and by the New York Film Critics and the screenplay by Richard Murphy was nominated for an Oscar®.
Producer: Louis de Rochemont
Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Richard Murphy; Anthony Abbot (article)
Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Art Direction: Richard Day, Chester Gore
Music: David Buttolph
Film Editing: Harmon Jones
Cast: Dana Andrews (State's Attorney Henry L. Harvey), Jane Wyatt (Madge Harvey), Lee J. Cobb (Chief Harold F. 'Robbie' Robinson), Cara Williams (Irene Nelson, Coney Island Café waitress), Arthur Kennedy (John Waldron), Sam Levene (Dave Woods, 'Morning Record' reporter), Taylor Holmes (T.M. Wade), Robert Keith (Mac McCreery), Ed Begley (Paul Harris).
by Paul Tatara