Today we reminisce about
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: Dana Andrews, Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt, Arthur Kennedy, Sam Levene
* Published specifically for the Arthur Kennedy’s Conquest of the Screen Blogathon hosted by Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema *
The story you are about to witness is based on facts. In the interests of authenticity, all scenes, both interior and exterior, have been photographed in the original locale and as many actual characters as possible have been used.
It is not often that a film begins with such a bold and promising text as the one above. Moreover, it even less likely that a story based on real events will reflect the entire truth as many liberties are taken when developing a screenplay that will satisfy Hollywood’s standards. Boomerang! is one of these rare movies that does adhere to the filmmakers’ troth in accurately portraying the story at hand, which reflects a 1924 murder case that took place in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The names of the persons involved were changed and the only errs to be found are in regard to the actual personal lives of some of the characters, details which are omitted from the opening statement.
Father George Lambert of St. Christopher’s Protestant Episcopal Church is a beloved member of the Bridgeport community. On the evening of September 29th, Father Lambert is taking his usual stroll down Main Street when he is brutally shot in the head with a .32 calibre gun by an unknown assailant. The shooting occurs in the plain sight of several witnesses who unsuccessfully attempt to capture the gunman before attending to the heavily wounded Father Lambert. He dies a short while later. The next day, the newspapers are abuzz with the dramatic events of the night before although the police, lead by Chief Harold “Robby” Robinson (Lee J. Cobb), are stumped as to how to capture the killer. Ten days later, the killer is still at-large and the Bridgeport police are no closer to solving the case despite having questioned thousands of suspects. Bridgeport’s mayor goes to see the State’s Attorney Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews), demanding that the FBI be allowed to handle the case seeing as how the local police are incompetent. The mayor is not so much concerned at delivering justice as he is at winning the next election. Harvey does not give in and goes to see Robby who wants to quit the case due to the increasing pressure from political involvement. After being reassured by Harvey, Robby continues on and is hopeful that they will be able to find their man within two weeks time.
Composites of the alleged killer are wired all over the state and then throughout the entirety of New England. The only reliable description the witnesses were able to give was that the perpetrator wore a dark overcoat with a light fedora hat, a popular combination that does not easily provide many leads. Nonetheless, a man in Ohio meets the description and is extradited back to the Connecticut for questioning. The man, John “Tony” Waldron (Arthur Kennedy), appears in a line-up with multiple other suspects and is positively identified by seven witnesses. This allows the police to hold him on a murder charge. Robby organises an intense interrogation of the suspect that lasts for a couple of days without allowing Waldron any sleep or breaks. He initially denies ever seeing Father Lambert but eventually admits having talked with him about some life issues, the result being that the Father gave him a lecture and a pamphlet. To make matters worse, a .32 calibre gun was found on him at the time of his extradition. Waldron maintains his innocence but is slowly weakened by extreme fatigue and pressure tactics. Only when he can take no more, Waldron admits to murdering Father Lambert and signs a confession.
Waldron is arraigned on a charge of murder, maintaining his innocence to no avail. Harvey goes to visit Waldron in jail on the advice of a political colleague who wants him to extract information that he can use for a conviction. (It is stated that if Harvey manages to obtain a guilty verdict, he will be heavily backed as a candidate for Governor.) When the two men speak, Harvey is taken aback by Waldron’s honesty and something inside of him starts to question the man’s guilt. He begins a thorough investigation of the events leading up to the crime, helping him to form a solid judgement. When the preliminary hearing takes place, everyone is shocked when Harvey proclaims that he believes that Waldron is innocent and asks that the court dismiss the charges (nolle prosequi). Harvey’s proclamation enrages politicians and the public alike, with threats and danger lurking from all corners aimed towards Waldron, Harvey and his wife Madge (Jane Wyatt).
Will the court throw out the case based on Harvey’s investigation? What kinds of people are lurking in the background with blackmail and other ulterior motives up their sleeves? How will Waldron’s fate play out?
Background & Thoughts
The idea for the story came about when an article written by author Anthony Abbot called “The Perfect Case” was published in The Reader’s Digest. It is noted in the opening credits that the article appeared in the December 1945 edition of the Digest at the same time as it was printed elsewhere. According to the American Film Institute catalog of motion pictures produced in the United States, “The Reader’s Digest story was a condensed version of a longer story by Abbot published in the Rotarian magazine in Dec 1945. Abbot was the pen name for Reader’s Digest staff writer Fulton Oursler.” (F4-1, pg. 277) It is a bit of an oddity that it would appear in two different publications at the same time; regardless, the story was quite swiftly treated for the screen. A rough draft of the script was produced in the early part of 1946, written by writer Richard Murphy and director Elia Kazan. (Another odd discrepancy is that the AFI’s catalogue lists the film’s writer as Robert Murphy.)
Twentieth Century Fox Head Darryl Zanuck was enthusiastic about the project and had great trust in Kazan’s decision-making even though this was to be only his third time as director and his second time working at Fox. Zanuck, who was not an easy man to please, had only positive remarks about the director and about all the performances. Of course, he was bothered in that he felt that the film needed more oomph in order to capture the audience’s attention and have them question the identity of the real killer. As a result of this, an additional subplot was added involving a plot of blackmail against Harvey and his wife. I personally see both the highs and lows of Zanuck’s preference. On a good note, the subplot did add excitement to the film just when you thought that a definitive conclusion had been made in the case. On the flip side, the twist of events came a little out of nowhere and is a bit too abrupt in scheme of things. In any case, the film did exceptionally well at the box office despite any reservations Zanuck may have had about the finished product.
Boomerang! boasts a tremendous cast of thespians, some who were already established and some others who were making names for themselves. Dana Andrews was at the top of his professional game, having played his most quality role as Fred Derry just a year earlier in 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives. Before that, he had worked his way up the ladder working as a contract player for Samuel Goldwyn in films like Tobacco Road, The Ox-Bow Incident, The North Star, Laura and Fallen Angel. Having been a long time fan of his work, I was excited to finally get to see this film and was the first to be surprised when I found myself hesitant of his role as a public defender. Having spent so much time on-screen in a hat and trench coat in a detective/copper capacity, I was unprepared to see him in a sleek suit in front a judge. Thankfully Dana put my worries to ease the more I saw him in character, quickly showing me that he was up for the challenge of a different role. In the end, I found this to be one of Dana’s most touching and superbly acted parts. It came as a further shock to me to discover that Kazan was not very keen about Dana’s methods or on-/off-set behaviour, trying to trip-up the actor and break his rhythm. In the end, however, the job was done satisfactorily on all sides though he would never work with Kazan again despite heavily vying for Gregory Peck’s role in Gentleman’s Agreement. (More details are in Carl Rollyson’s outstanding book Hollywood Engima: Dana Andrews.)
Two people who would work with Kazan again and receive some of the best praise of their careers were Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden. They appeared in 1954’s On the Waterfront with both men receiving Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor. (In addition, co-star Rod Steiger was also nominated in the same category. Neither three would win the Oscar.) Cobb’s role is much more developed in this film than Malden’s although it is hard not to notice him considering that he has such a familiar face. Unlike in other films like 12 Angry Men and How the West Was Won, Cobb was a gentile figure in this film that went out of their way to be non-violent, fighting the image of corrupt police. His character is not perfect and does make mistakes which makes it all the more interesting to see how Andrew’s Harvey handles the case. Not to be missed is the fantastically memorable character actor, Sam Levene, who steals the show as a dirt digging journalist who is ultimately fighting for righteousness. Jane Wyatt, on the other hand, does not have many scenes to justify her second billing though she is pleasant enough in her interactions with on-screen husband Andrews.
“Is one man’s life worth more than the community?”
This is the question that Henry Harvey must ask himself in the face of the enormous political and social pressure mounting against him. Luckily he not only goes by what his heart tells him but also by scientific proof that is undisputable. There is much to like about this film which is not a flawless Kazan picture but one that is an extraordinary effort from an otherwise inexperienced director.
Once you see Arthur Kennedy as John Waldron, you feel as if the role were tailor made for him. Arthur is very straight-laced yet has a slightly bewildered quality to his overall appearance that could make it feasible to mistake it as being sinister in nature. The sheer sight of him in a police line-up is slightly unsettling because he sticks out like a sore thumb. He does not have rugged looks that would suggest a hardened lifestyle. Instead, his face is smooth and fresh with even features. His hair is politely coifed and his clothes are smart and clean. Perhaps these details are just what it takes to throw off the witnesses who, after seeing thousands of suspects, finally see someone who is just enough out of the ordinary to be capable of committing cold-blooded murder. Even if one were prone to believing in Waldron’s innocence, there is too much circumstantial evidence pitted against him. He and the reverend’s past meeting, the placing at the time of the murder, the gun, the forced confession… it is too much to think that he could stand a chance at exoneration. Yet, Waldron does not give up and a large part of this magic is due to Arthur’s gutsy performance.
Arthur knows exactly how to play Waldron, an ex-serviceman who had just come back to civilian life after 5 years in the Army. He is a man who is in search of a better life, fed up with lowly jobs that paid next-to-nothing and had no possibility for career advancement. Although he has much to be disappointed about in life, he remains calm and approachable. This poise is a constant, even when Waldron is in-and-out of consciousness, desperate for a bit of sleep. Much realism is displayed by Arthur in the interrogation scenes which are almost uncomfortable to watch as you see him pleading for rest. By the end of it all, you feel the relief when they finally stop torturing him and he signs the document, collapsing immediately in a state of immeasurable fatigue. It is here also that you garner much sympathy for the character even though you are not sure of his innocence or guilt. The most touching scene is when Waldron meets Harvey. The totality of exasperation seeps from Arthur during this portrayal as he explains one further time about his innocence while at the same time recognising that his words simply fall on deaf ears. Why should Harvey be any different from the others, especially since he has expressed himself honestly so many times beforehand?
This is not the first time that I have seen Arthur in a film and thanks to my more in-depth exposure to him in Boomerang!, it certainly will not be the last. I think that the description of him being more talented than just being relegated to being a character actor yet not having the refinement of a leading man is so very true. Luckily he still managed to have a healthy career in many memorable films, to our good fortune as Classic Film cinephiles. 🙂