The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict.
1947’s Boomerang!, based on a real-life murder case that was never solved, stands out among Hollywood’s many courtroom dramas due to its excellent acting, unusual plot structure and creative storytelling style.
The crime that provides the basis for the movie occurred in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1924, but because the town refused to allow Boomerang! to be filmed there, nearby Stamford was used instead. The basic facts of the original case are all present in the film. A priest is publicly executed by a gunshot to the head and the killer escapes before shocked witnesses can react. A manhunt and tremendous pressure on the police and local politicians ensue. Eventually the police arrest a drifter, a war veteran familiar with firearms and in possession of a .32 caliber handgun such as was used in the murder. He initially asserts his innocence but confesses to the crime after an extended pre-Miranda Era grilling by police detectives. The pressure is on for a quick conviction and sentencing, but the state’s attorney (in real life, future Attorney General of the United States Homer Cummings) begins to doubt the guilt of the accused.
The film is an early effort of Elia Kazan, and shows the flowering inventiveness of a young filmmaker on his way to a glittering career. Montage sequences are skillfully employed both to move the story along and also to provide local color. We don’t just see the usual newspaper headlines “Murder Suspect Arrested!” racing across the screen. Instead the montages also cut between little moments: Woman gossiping about the crime on the back stoop, men who vaguely match the description of the killer being arrested by police, ordinary people eyeing each other suspiciously on the street. Combined with shooting on location, these sequences do much to deepen the film’s realistic style.
Richard Murphy’s script, based on Fulton Oursler’s Reader’s Digest article about the real case, adds some elements that are uniquely suspenseful. Through an early scene with the priest followed by some meaningful closeups later, viewers are signaled about the true identity of the murderer. Thus, unlike in films where the audience is on the edge of their seats wondering if someone is guilty, the tension is focused instead on whether mob pressure will result in the conviction of an innocent man. Further, by inventing context about local machine politics, including giving the defendant an attorney who wants him to be convicted, the script shifts attention away from what will happen when the case is tried and centers its conflict on the morality of one character: When absolutely everyone is rooting for a conviction and the consequences of not securing it could be personally disastrous, what should a state’s attorney do when he thinks the police have the wrong man?
Dana Andrews was born to play characters like the state’s attorney, and this is one of his best roles. When he meets the accused (Arthur Kennedy, very good as usual) in jail, he expects a perfunctory post-confession meeting. But when he begins to learn the other side of his story, the doubt and sympathy subtly and irresistibly grow on Andrews’ face. He was so good at calibrating his reactions that you could imagine everyone in the audience thinking they were the one person who noticed that something was roiling beneath the surface polish. Kazan was of the method school and wanted more histrionics from the naturalistic Andrews, which goes to show that even A-list directors are wrong some of the time.
An actor more to Kazan’s liking, Lee J. Cobb, makes a big impression here as a gruff, tough yet ethical police detective. There are a few scenes when Kazan lets the camera linger on him for a few moments after the dialogue has ended, and each time Cobb gives some look or non-verbal gesture that nicely conveys his thoughts and feelings. Jane Wyatt, as Andrews’ wife, has the right touch in the domestic scenes: They are absolutely credible as a loving, long-married couple. Ed Begley is also compelling as a slimy local businessman with a selfish interest in a quick conviction, and Karl Malden makes a good cop, just as he would again with Andrews in Where the Sidewalk Ends (Recommendation here).
The last act of the film, which takes place in a packed courtroom, shows how a superstar can dominate the screen (if you want a similar, more recent example, check out Paul Newman’s courtroom closing argument in The Verdict). Standing center stage and looking devastating in a natty dark suit (WHY WHY WHY did American men ever stop dressing this way?), Andrews has 95% of the dialogue, with the other actors mainly being window dressing. It could have been stagy, but Andrews sells it with invincible credibility, giving the audience an exciting and satisfying wrap-up of every loose end in the story.