As one of the films made before his disastrous, life- and career-altering testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in April 1952, Elia Kazan ’s Boomerang! (1947) has long been treated as a footnote in the career of one of Hollywood’s master directors. Kazan’s later films would be admired equally for their potent autobiographical elements (Marlon Brando taking a controversial stand against corruption in On the Waterfront ); James Dean desperately seeking love and approval from an uncaring father figure in East of Eden ); Stathis Giallelis’ quest for survival as a Greek emigrant in America America ) as they were for their technical mastery and performances that would reshape the geography of cinematic acting. This focus on the latter part of Kazan’s career is understandable, but flawed for its ignorance of his early work where he transitioned from the golden boy of Broadway (where he had established himself as a preeminent director and playwright) to a golden boy of Hollywood.
Kazan’s early cinematic career was dominated by films that focused primarily on “hot button issues” like race and prejudice: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) followed an impoverished family of Irish-Americans; Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) was an exposé on Anti-Semitism so potent for its time that it won three Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director; Pinky (1949) concerned the struggles of a light-skinned African-American woman who passes for white. But among these “important” message movies are a number of curious genre pictures such as the unfortunate Western The Sea of Grass (1947) and the doc-style noir/thriller Panic in the Streets (1950). Boomerang! (1952) belongs to this latter group– a thundering true crime drama about a vagrant named John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy) who’s unjustly accused of murdering a priest in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
After being interrogated and sleep deprived for two days by local police detective Lt. White (Karl Malden), Waldron breaks and signs a confession. But in a stunning move, the State’s Attorney Henry L. Harvey (Dana Andrews)– the very man tasked with persecuting Waldron–takes it upon himself to prove the man’s innocence.
There are really two films in Boomerang!. The first involves the manhunt for the killer led by beleaguered Police Chief Harold F. Robinson (Lee J. Cobb). Here Kazan mixes hard-boiled genre filmmaking—terse, tough-guy acting performances, matter-of-fact interior scene blocking, a detached yet forceful narrator— with the kind of documentary techniques that he would use to greater effect several years later with Panic in the Streets. (Most of it was filmed on location in Stamford and many real residents of the town were cast.)
In a curious stylistic flourish, these early sequences frequently interpose scenes of ordinary townsfolk discussing the details of the case and commenting on the investigation like a Greek chorus as they go about their day hanging laundry or going to work. (Fred Schepisi would use this technique to greater effect several decades later in his film Evil Angels , itself a real life drama about a suspect unjustly put on trial for a crime they didn’t commit.)
The second part of the film detailing Waldron’s trial is filmed more like a traditional Hollywood studio drama. If the first part was intriguing for Kazan’s shooting methods, the latter is notable for the intricacies and genius of Richard Murphy’s screenplay: Harvey’s tireless and brilliant desiccation of the eye-witness testimonies, his use of crime scene reconstructions to highlight the improbability of Waldron’s involvement in the attack, and a slightly melodramatic yet effective climax where he proves once and for all that Waldron’s gun could not have been the murder weapon.
Boomerang! is not a flawless film. For one thing, there is an odd, superfluous sub-plot about a local businessman who threatens Harvey’s family. This transforms Harvey’s decision to aid Waldron from being merely an internal, moral one into an external, practical one. In trying to raise the stakes, Kazan dilutes his own message about the importance of fighting for what’s right. Yet Boomerang! remains a taut, effective drama fascinating both for its technical acumen and for its disturbing prescience of the travails Kazan would face with HUAC in only five years.