A Priest is shot and killed one evening on the streets of Stamford, Connecticut. Based on a true story in Reader’s Digest, written by Richard Oursler, director Elia Kazan, in this 1947 film focuses on the investigation and accusation of an innocent man, a homeless ex-serviceman trying to get his life together, who is accused of this infamous murder. Filmed mainly in Stamford with mostly non-professional actors except for the leading roles, produced by Louis de Rochemont, and released by 20th Century Fox, the film has a semi-documentary style similar to the previously released “House on 92nd Street” and the then forthcoming “The Street with No Name”, both released by Fox.
The film’s opening statement informs the audience that this is a true story filmed in the actual locations. As with most films even when claiming the story you are about to see is true the facts are at least somewhat distorted. The actual crime took place Bridgeport, Connecticut not Stamford where most of the film was made. Additionally, the real life crime took place more than two decades earlier, in 1924, than it is recorded here. The move to Stamford was due to the reluctance of the town of Bridgeport to allow 20th Century Fox to film in their streets, subsequently Stamford was used as a substitute.
The murder of Father Lambert is quick and sudden right as the film begins. We are barely two minutes into the film proper when a gun is put to the back of the pastor’s head and the trigger is pulled. Even today, it is a shocking beginning. “Witnesses” seem to be everywhere though the camera only shows the murder suspect from the back wearing a dark overcoat and a light hat which in late 1940’s America was just about every man in the street.
Flashbacks, with the assistance of a narrator reveal how beloved the minister was by all. We see him interact with his flock in several situations including, as we will soon discover, one individual who will become the alleged suspect, John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy). We also see a conversation the pastor has with another individual who he demands seeks help for his mental condition. If he refuses, the pastor will make the call himself. The man is plainly upset at what the pastor is attempting to do and as we shall realize provides a hint, and a motive, at whom the real murderer could be.
As the days pass by without an arrest, the police are criticized by the local newspaper for not making any progress in the case stating city hall is running around like chickens without a head. Finally, eighteen days after the crime, the suspect John Waldron is apprehended in Ohio, where he went searching for a job, and is brought back to Connecticut. A harsh police interrogation coerces a confession out of Waldron. Early on, during the interrogation, Waldron had asked for a lawyer and Police Chief Harold Robinson (Lee J Cobb) tells him there is plenty of time for a lawyer later on. So much for civil rights. The evidence against Waldon seems solid. He is picked out of a lineup by local citizens who witnessed the shooting. The gun that fired the bullet was found in his possession and of course, he confessed, signing with the assistance of the police department’s interrogation techniques.
State’s Attorney Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews) is presenting the case. The local warring politicians want Waldron convicted, whether he is guilty or not does not seem to be an issue. Harvey’s cronies are encouraging him to run for Governor, only he has to win this case. While the evidence at first seems solid against Waldron as Harvey begins to review and test the evidence he finds it is not as sound as originally presented. The “witnesses” are as not as perfect as first thought. When the case goes to court, Harvey goes against the political heavyweights demanding conviction, as his doubts about the guilt of the accused mounts.
In Boomerang! corrupt politicians are purely out for there own gains or protection. The townspeople want justice i.e. revenge for the death of their beloved minister even if the wrong man is convicted. The police department is squeezed in the middle being pressured by both the politicians and the public for “justice.” For Kazan, this was the first time he touched on the subject of corruption, a topic he would revisit in more detail in later films. Here, he seems to be somewhat restrained maybe still believing that most political officials were honest and decent folks with no personal agendas. Kazan was still in the early stages of his film career and “Boomerang!” was pretty much a job for hire. What Boomerang! did do for Kazan was introduce him to the benefits and realism of shooting on location, freeing him of the studio bound restrictions of his first two films. Location shooting would be something he would pursue in his best works, films like “On the Waterfront”, “Panic in the Streets” “Viva Zapata”, “Wild River” and others. Kazan does credit Boomerang!” for setting the tone of his development and style as a filmmaker. In Jeff Young’s interview book “The Master Director Discusses His Films”, Kazan states, In “Boomerang!” I think, is the basis for “Panic in the Streets” and in “Panic in the Streets” is the basis for “On the Waterfront.” If you see these three films together, you’ll see the development.”
The acting highlight is the young Arthur Kennedy as the ex-veteran John Waldron who previously worked with Kazan in the Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in the role of Biff Loman. Of course, part of that same cast in that brilliant work was Lee J. Cobb who played Willy Loman. Cobb would lose out to Fredric March in the 1951 film version of “Death of a Salesman”, but would get the chance some 15 years later to put his mark on film in a 1966 TV production for which he won an Emmy. Cobb owns the role of Willy Loman like Brando owns “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Kazan was comfortable with Cobb and Kennedy, actors from the same theater background as himself, as opposed to Hollywood trained actors like Dana Andrews and Jane Wyatt. This is reflected on screen with Andrews particularly coming off as if his is “acting.” He seems a bit stiff and unnatural as opposed to Cobb and Kennedy’s organic performances. This clash in performing styles is made obvious in scenes where the opposing actors appear together. Sam Levene is the local newspaper reporter who writes hard-hitting articles attacking the police amateur style investigation of the crime. Also, look for another Kazan favorite, an early unbilled appearance by Karl Malden as one of the detectives. Finally, playwright Arthur Miller, has a small role as one of the suspects in the lineup.
As the film ends the narrator announces that the character of States Attorney Henry Harvey was based on that of Homer Cummings who would go on the become Attorney General of the United States under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“Boomerang!” is not first class Kazan, here he was still learning his craft. That said, the film is his first that deals with the social issues that would consume most of his future work, issues that would be explored in more detail in films like “Gentlemen’s Agreement”, “On the Waterfront”, “Wild River” and “A Face in the Crowd.” “Boomerang!” remains a solid if not spectacular piece of work.