Reader’s Digest published Fulton Oursler’s article in its December 1945 edition which, in turn, became the basis for director Elia Kazan’s second of 19 feature-length motion pictures, Boomerang! (1947). An especially relevant and taut film it is, too. Steeped as it is in stark and sobering black and white naturalism, this is considered part of the jaded film noir genre. In its first half, it’s easy to see why. Boomerang! has an almost exclusively dark view of mankind as a petty, raging mob, a theme in Kazan’s movies.
The status quo reeks from every pore of nearly every man and woman in a mid-sized Connecticut city, where a priest is gunned down in public, execution style, in a shocking scene. The men who run the New England city are pestering cronies and second-handers. The women are also bad, depicted as a population of nattering females that add up to a herd of guttersnipes. This is a measured depiction, however, nested into daily outrages and outbursts that any one from every station in life might relate to given a certain context. Water cooler gossip and chatter, so prevalent in today’s mindless media, social and otherwise, spreads like a silent and deadly disease without question in this upper east coast town.
There are exceptions, though, in a few fallible men and one, lone woman. Kazan, working with screenwriter Richard Murphy (who worked with Kazan later on Panic in the Streets), delivers the flawed hero in leading man Dana Andrews. From the beginning, Andrews as the state’s attorney checks and thinks for himself. He’s a man of the people but he is foremost a man of reason. In a key scene, when he’s presented with a dilemma which threatens to destroy his highest value, he gains balance and guidance from principle. Not by merging with the herd, ceding to the mob, or yielding to pure, raw emotion. His inspiration comes from words in a book and it is followed by a scene, really one of her best in pictures, with Jane Wyatt (Jim Anderson’s wife on Father Knows Best) as his wife.
In quiet, intimate scenes between Wyatt and Andrews, Kazan embeds his signature of deep and, to a certain degree, intellectual loving couples — think of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Man on a Tightrope, On the Waterfront, even Wild River — uniting and acting on principle against some form of adversity, usually collectivist injustice. These are not the picture’s dominant scenes or themes. But, with Wyatt’s simple reply to her husband that she “didn’t intend it to”, their brief but indelible unity is early proof that strokes of romanticism move and fuel Kazan’s exceptional filmography.
Can collectives be wrong? This is the underlying question which introduces the Boomerang! theme that the collective must be challenged by the individual who stands alone against everyone and everything. This, of course, is the opposite theme of these collectivist times, which makes Boomerang! more urgent, meaningful and potent. With Lee J. Cobb (12 Angry Men) as a rational policeman, Karl Malden (On the Waterfront) as a detective and Arthur Kennedy (Too Late for Tears) as the accused murderer, Boomerang! dramatizes the highly charged prospect of jumping to the wrong conclusion over the murder of an innocent man. This entails examining injustice against society’s most vulnerable victims, in this case an Army veteran who is easy pickings, police brutality, the incalculable damage of cronyism and the crucial role of the free press.
Boomerang! shows what shapes the factors that cause an entire community to become a lynch mob — today’s mindless Me, Too movement comes to mind — and drives the individualist to doubt, question and “fight the whole town”. Loaded with tightly drawn lines, ideas and performances and laced with clues to beat the men of the status quo, who gang up and intimidate with what amount to loaded questions, Boomerang! nails its gritty noirishness, lampoons populism in its lowest forms and flips up a single, penetrating question: “Is one man’s life worth more than the community?”
Though too much of what backs up the answer happens offscreen, which becomes apparent in the film’s left-field courtroom climax, Boomerang! demonstrates with a sense of purpose and style that getting smacked back with the force of an accepted rotten idea stems from the false premise of the question itself.
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