Sunday, March 17, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.3: Elia Kazan's Boomerang!

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 64/B

Elia Kazan’s sophomore effort, 1947’s The Sea of Grass, was a crushing disappointment, but the director had a number of other projects going for him. His successful stage productions included Truckline Café (featuring an unknown actor by the name of Marlon Brando) and the original production of All My Sons. He also had another couple of films released the same year. One film, Gentleman’s Agreement, would go on to win a number of Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. The other, earlier film, Boomerang!, was nominated for Best Screenplay, but it largely faded into semi-obscurity, cherished mostly by film noir nuts. The film is not a major work in his filmography, but it is a step in the right direction after the debacle of The Sea of Grass.
A beloved priest is murdered in the town of Bridgeport, Connecticut. The townspeople all demand that someone be caught and prosecuted. Local politician Paul Harris (Ed Begley) pushes for a quick arrest and conviction. Put upon Chief of Police Harold Robinson (Lee J. Cobb) eventually arrests John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy), a war veteran turned vagrant. But State Attorney Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews) isn’t convinced that Waldron is guilty, and he goes on to help exonerate him.

The great advantage to Boomerang! is Kazan’s early use of on location shooting. The film is based on a real unsolved crime, and Kazan shot in a town very close to the original place. He used many real people in small roles, all of whom give natural performances. In the major roles, Kazan cast a number of talented character actors and regular collaborators (Kennedy, Cobb, and Karl Malden were acting in All My Sons at the same time), all of whom have the same regular-fellow likability. Kennedy is particularly strong as a troubled but relatable man who’s clearly the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The film is fascinating in the way it combines noir with naturalism- an interrogation scene has a deep focus, a simple, realistic feeling, and some strong, simple close ups, but it also has a terrific use of shadows and a ticking clock as a way to put the audience on edge. Kazan uses montages to connect gossiping townspeople or various faces of suspects, which capture both a natural small town feel and a noir sense of hopelessness. There are a number of scenes that would rank among Kazan’s fine list of shocking, emotional moments- the shooting of the priest, which hits us like a baseball bat to the head; a moment in an alley where men crowd around Kennedy and police detective Malden, trapping them and trying to convince Malden to let them attack Kennedy. It’s an early mix of formalistic dread and realistic emotion and action that hints at Kazan’s later masterpieces.

Still, it can’t rank among Kazan’s best works. The trial sequence, while more entertaining than many more static movie trials, is completely preposterous. The film ultimately can’t compare to other similar films, with Fritz Lang’s Fury standing out as a more powerful example. Bigger problem: while the docu-noir feeling is successful for the most part, Kazan and his accomplished screenwriter Richard Murphy stumble big time with the use of narration. Murphy and Kazan no doubt wanted to bring the documentary feel with the narration, and there is an attempt to contrast the narrator’s sunny sayings about small town goodness with the injustice on display. No dice: this stuff is awful, on the nose about the goodness of the town and the irony (“Life is pleasant and a little dull”, “These things can happen anywhere”). It got to a point in the early going where I literally yelled out “Oh my god, shut the fuck up!”.

Kazan and Murphy’s work is clear and intelligent enough that they don’t need this junk. The film plays as Kazan’s first successful work about social injustice and corruption. Cobb’s police chief is a fundamentally decent man, if certainly a stubborn one, and he’s frustrated early on in how he’s being pushed by the government to get an early conviction. Cobb calls it a “political three-ring circus”, and he’s got things pegged. Ed Begley’s election and his success depends on this case, and he’s going to manipulate the trial any way he can to get what he needs. A memorable shot shows him with an assistant towering over Andrews, dark lighting behind them, like demons on Andrews’ shoulders as they push him to convict. He’s not the only bastard, of course. His opposition’s actions aren’t too different, and they flat out state at one point that they’re more interested in making people look bad than finding someone guilty.

But the film’s interrogation sequence might be the most telling about the flaws of man. Cobb defends Kennedy from some of the other officers, who suggest beating a confession out of him, but he’s more than willing to keep the man awake for a few days to get what he needs. It exposes the flaws in the system, which can force even good men to use torture techniques in order to do “good”. Kennedy’s performance is particularly effective in communicating how alienated men might be singled out by society- he’s troubled, possibly dishonest, and bitter towards how the country has treated him after the war, giving him only lousy dead-end jobs with no hope for a future. It’s a tale of good men being manipulated by demands of a flawed society and system, and while the film may be minor Kazan, it’s clearly an important stepping stone for him to establish his style.

NOTE: If you can find the DVD with a commentary by film historians James Ursini and Allan Silver, I’d highly recommend checking it out. I don’t think Boomerang! is a major film the way they seem to, but they both make a good case for it, and they clearly know their stuff.

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