Saturday, July 18, 2015


Beyond the other complaints I have about it, ironies and contradictions abound in Elia Kazan’s 1947 film BOOMERANG!

Upright District Attorney Henry Harvey (played by Dana Andrews) goes against pretty much the whole town he serves in suburban Connecticut in order to keep young drifter John Waldron from being convicted of murdering the priest of the local Church, Father Lambert. Contradiction number one: District Attorneys are supposed to either prosecute crimes or not bring them for indictment in the first place, and yet Harvey brings the case to trial and then tries to plead nolo prosequi, reversing field and telling the whole courtroom why the accused man could not be guilty (and making himself look like an incompetent in the process). I just couldn’t see that happening, even though the movie is “based” on a real life case.

Contradiction number two: District Attorneys are the most political of animals, and yet Harvey stands up to the political fixers and brokers and kingmakers in town even though it is political suicide. He is backed by the “reform party” in town, the ones who have thrown out the “machine” hacks. The reformers are up against it when the cops, their cops, and their DA, can’t find the killer. The newspaper in town is run by the ousted machine, and so the longer the powers that be fail to find out who put a bullet in the back of Father Lambert’s head, the worse it looks for Harvey come next election time. I had trouble believing a District Attorney could be so principled and still have managed to become District Attorney in the first place (can anyone say Eliot Spitzer?)

And yet this guy Harvey takes on the whole town, including police Chief Robinson (Lee J. Cobb), who looks all during the movie like he just pulled on one of his boots and found out it was full of piss. And Harvey comes out not only smelling like a rose, but then goes on to become US Attorney General! Give me a break.

1947 was the same year Kazan won the Academy Award for GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT, one of the first Hollywood movies to directly confront anti-Semitism. I hope GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT was a better movie. In BOOMERANG!, Cobb is not the man or menace he was later in ON THE WATERFRONT (1954), also by Kazan, and Karl Malden, as Lieutenant White, is vapid, inconsequential, a milksop, not the hard-assed priest who takes a beer bottle to the head in “Waterfront.”

BOOMERANG!, like TWELVE ANGRY MEN and THE OX BOW INCIDENT before it, pits one rational and just man against a mob, some of whom may be well-meaning, but whose fear and bloodlust have driven them beyond reason. It takes guts to face down a mob, and Harvey’s supposed to be showing a real impressive set of cojones here, but I just didn’t buy it. No fire in the belly. Andrews uses the same expression to convey every emotion from joy to despair, steely determination to dyspepsia. He blows his couple of chances to shower himself with rhetorical glory by coming off as a blowhard. I went to the fridge for a beer for both his big speeches.

I didn’t like the documentary style (I prefer the way Woody Allen makes fun of such style in TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN). The style’s didactic, indoctrinating us into right thinking, feeding us a simplistic morality as if we were baby birds and truth could be dispensed with an eye dropper. That is irony number one: a movie about a guy who keeps his head and doesn’t follow the crowd force feeds its point to us. We are explicitly told there is a lesson in it for everyone. The town in Connecticut is never named, and the narrator tells us that the name doesn’t matter, that all American small towns are the same under the inconsequential surface differences. So pay attention, boys and girls, because this could happen to you!

The second irony has been pointed out many times by thinkers much superior to me—Democracy is created to give John Q Public civic freedom, and yet that gives good old John Q the freedom to take his own freedom away (can anyone say Patriot Act?) The movie is very clear about how we must rely on superior men to keep us from falling into this trap, to save us from the machines (which, interestingly enough, were started by immigrants who couldn’t access the political process any other way) and the crooked newspapermen and crooked cops. Henry Harvey is our man, then. And so is Captain Robinson, who flatly turns down the old Irish Bull cop who says to him, when the interrogation of Waldron is going poorly and slow, “you know, there’s a faster way to do this.” No beatings and a DA who really believes in giving the common man a fair shake? We’re not in Connecticut, Kansas or even the U.S. anymore.

Third irony. Kazan lionizes the common (although superior) man as some kind of torchbearer for democracy, in the mold of Mr. Smith (played by Jimmy Stewart in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON in 1939, eight years before this movie, but on the other side of WW2), an exceptional everyday guy who uses his free speech to preserve our rights, and yet Kazan named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Kazan, who was the child of Greek Immigrants, knew about political persecution, but played along to save his own skin. Yes, he allowed himself to be cowed by the mob, quite unlike Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) in “Waterfront,” who takes a beating standing up to a mobbed-up union so all the poor ham-and-eggers busting their humps just to put those ham and eggs on the table could get a fair and square deal. Kazan played along even though he knew full well that the people he named didn’t hate America, but had a different vision of how democratic ideals should be brought about.

Fourth irony-Jane Wyatt, Harvey’s wife in the film, was an outspoken opponent of McCarthy! You go, girl. And who says Father Knows Best.

The movie is ham-fisted in its approach. Harvey is asked if one man’s life is more important than the whole community, and he unhesitatingly says yes. I think of myself as a good liberal, and even I hesitate over that one, or see it as a more complex question than it appears. In a day and age where torture is being touted as the way to save the nation (and we only torture the bad guys, right, like anyone who disagrees with us) I question this tactic, but only because I think it endangers the community more than it does anything to save it. You can’t start torturing people and really think it is only going to happen to guilty people. If there was a way to know that only the terrorists were going to be tortured, that every drop of guilty blood spilled guaranteed innocent blood would not be, I would say torture away.

Kazan wasn’t brave enough to say that we have to protect the guilty from unfair treatment. He doesn’t really go out on a limb at all. Harvey protects a blameless man from a mob that is bound to come eventually to its senses (and he will always have Marge—who would have thought that Jane Wyatt was once so hot?) Big deal. Protect a child molester, or some other genuine pariah. If you really want to go to the wall for democracy, those are the ones whom you have to defend. Not because they deserve the benefit of the doubt, but because everyone does.

One last quibble with Kazan. He gives us a totally depraved real killer that confesses to Father Lambert about some other sin, but can’t get forgiveness (he probably went to a movie the National Legion of Decency didn’t endorse). Father Lambert is going to have said crook committed to a sanitarium (there’s some Christian forgiveness for you, but then again, it is a realistic movie). I didn’t know priests were trained in psychiatry, and that they were allowed to commit people. And the guy who confesses his unknown crime(s) to the good father has a furtive adolescent quality to him (along with eyes that don’t quite track together) that makes me think he should have hair growing on his palms. We never know what he has done, except kill the Father, but the imagined perversion of the crime to me speaks of a kind of unalloyed depravity to counterbalance Harvey’s solid-gold goodness. Realistic, my eye.

Finally (I know, I am really starting to sound like a whiner) the movie is touted as noir. This is not noir. Noir is about doomed losers. This movie was about hope, not doom. It trumpets about free will and American self actualization, and is not some exercise in existential despair. Saccharine and unrealistic, it is in no way noir.

© 2015 Mike Welch

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