Drama Mystery/Noir


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.

Action/Adventure Drama Mystery/Noir

Bend of the River and The Naked Spur **Double Feature**

Caftan Woman: The James Stewart Blogathon: Bend of the River (1952)

Nobody can hate like a good man, and maybe that’s why Jimmy Stewart was so magnetic and moving in the hard-bitten Westerns he made with Anthony Mann after World War II. Stewart was a huge star at the outbreak of the war, during which he served with distinction. When the All-American, gee-whiz nice guy every dad hoped his daughter would bring home returned from military service, he was different, the country was different and his films didn’t do great box office. He might easily have appeared on a few TV shows and then drifted into retirement, as did many stars of his generation.

But two magnificent directors saw other qualities in Stewart, including a capacity for rage, bitterness, grief, longing, cynicism and violence. One of them remains famous (Hitchcock), the other, sadly, has mostly been forgotten. His name was Anthony Mann, and you could summarize much of his ouevre worse than saying it was “film noir goes west”.

Their first collaboration, the 1950 movie Winchester ’73, remains famous today because it was a massive hit that revived the then somnolent Western genre. It’s entertaining on any dimension, but for Stewart fans it’s particularly fascinating to see the darkness in his acting. When Stewart’s grief-ridden character (Lin McAdam) mashes Dan Duryea’s face into the bar and painfully twists Duryea’s gun arm, the rage in Stewart’s eyes is frightening; Duryea looks scared that Stewart is really going to hurt him.

The next two Mann-Stewart collaborations are somewhat less known today, which is too bad because they allow Stewart to go deeper into less seemly human emotions. They also both deliver thrilling action scenes. I offer them here as double feature recommendation: 1952’s Bend of the River and 1953’s The Naked Spur.

Western Noir: James Stewart in BEND OF THE RIVER (Universal ...

In Bend of the River, Stewart plays Glyn McLyntock, a former Kansas raider now helping a family of good-hearted pioneers settle in Oregon. They know nothing of his past, but slick gunman Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) who becomes attached to their party, does. Cole too seems to want to go straight, and helps defend the party as they make their perilous journey. The pioneers warn McLyntock that a bad man is always bad, and therefore Cole cannot be trusted, but McLyntock knows that he himself needs redemption just as much as Cole does. Ultimately, the pioneers are betrayed by unscrupulous villains, and Stewart, with his old violent nature returning, must try to settle the score.

As foils, Kennedy and Stewart play off each other effectively, and Rock Hudson also does well as a (ahem) charming dandy from San Francisco (Rock liked to watch his own movies with gay friends and laugh at the subtext — they must have chuckled here when he tells a smitten young woman to go away because he wants to be with the men). The violence is extreme for the early 1950s, with dozens of people being wounded or killed on screen. What is unfortunately not out of place in the early 1950s are some mercifully brief but still off-putting scenes with Stepin Fechit as a stereotypical African-American character. But to close on a positive note, the scenery is gorgeous and everyone seems to know how to handle horses and guns, including during the climactic shootout.

The Naked Spur features another psychologically damaged Stewart character who cannot accept that what is lost is lost forever, no matter how much vengeance you take. With able assistance from Mann and two other noir icons (Ralph Meeker of Kiss Me Deadly and Robert Ryan of The Set-Up), Stewart delivers a cowboy movie with psychic weight. The film’s emotional dynamic is the reverse of Bend of the River. Instead of a once bad man trying to be accepted by good people by showing how good he is now, Stewart plays a once good man telling good people that they should not accept him anymore. That’s what makes Stewart and Janet Leigh’s heartfelt closing scene a knockout.

In addition to being a movie star and director, Clint Eastwood is a student of film history, and I am going to give him the last word on the multi-talented, multi-dimensional Jimmy Stewart:


Too Late for Tears

I’ve recommended I Walk Alone, a 1948 gangster melodrama directed by Byron Haskin with Lizabeth Scott and Kristen Miller in supporting parts and Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in the leads. The following year, the first three of those talented people re-teamed to make Too Late for Tears. This time around, men move to the back of the room to make space for the women characters, the noir elements are much more pronounced, and the script offers a more tightly constructed and cleverly plotted story. The result is an even better movie, indeed a treasure of the film noir canon.

The plot has so many surprises that it’s hard to summarize without spoliers, so I will confine myself to the set up. The Palmers are driving down a lonely, winding canyon road. Alan Palmer is a straightforward, true blue type who loves and trusts his wife (or so it seems…). Jane Palmer has been married before to a man who committed suicide (apparently…) and complains that she is tired of not having enough money. But she is so happy to have Arthur as her husband that she doesn’t mind that he isn’t rich (or so she says…). And then, a miracle. Another car throws a suitcase full of kale into their back seat and then drives away without explanation. Clearly some mistake has been made and they ought to go to the police, but it’s so so tempting to keep so so much money. And then they see another car pursuing them: Is it driven by the person who was supposed to receive the payoff that has landed in their lap?

To reveal more would be an injustice. Roy Huggins, who later went on to TV Hall of Famedom for The Rockford Files and The Fugitive, deserves roses for his ingeniously plotted script. It keeps the viewer guessing (usually, wrong) and ties up all the loose ends in a satisfying conclusion.

Kristine Miller, as the sister-in-law who has never really trusted Jane Palmer, has some wonderful scenes with Scott where they are pleasant on the surface but clearly jousting underneath. I find it strange that the alluring and talented Miller never became a star, but she said in late life that in the end Producer Hal Wallis “didn’t know what to do with her”. That’s a shame, because with the right vehicle she could have captured the public’s imagination in way she ultimately did not in the 1940s and 1950s.

The male supporting players, Arthur Kennedy as Alan Palmer, Dan Duryea as a slimy grifter and Don DeFore as a man with mysterious motives, turn in solid performances. And Haskins, in contrast to I Walk Alone, seems in full command from the director’s chair, partly no doubt due to experience and partly because he has a stronger storyline this around.

But this movie is first and foremost dominated by Lizabeth Scott, in a knockout performance. She had an unusual life in film. She looks and sounds like a cross between Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall, and indeed was packaged as a Bacall-type by Hal Wallis. She spent almost her entire career making crime melodramas and film noirs in the 1940s (the fine picture Dead Reckoning with Humphrey Bogart being the mostly widely remembered). And then in the 1950s her career swooned, perhaps because the tabloid press reported that she was a lesbian (Ms. Scott, who lived until 2015, shunned publicity for over a half-century, so her view of what happened remains unknown).

I criticized her somewhat stilted performance in I Walk Alone, but I can do nothing but praise her tour-de-force in Too Late for Tears. She owns the screen, in one of a handful of movies made right after the war that was willing to put a tough woman at the center of the story (for another, see my review of Strange Impersonation). In her words, expressions and physical movements, Scott brings alive a femme fatale of hidden motives, craftiness and tough-as-nails pursuit of money. She’s a nasty, manipulative piece of work such that when a tough male actor like Dan Duryea is clearly shocked and repulsed about how much more brutal she is than he ever could be, the audience nods along, mouth agape.

Comparing this film to I Walk Alone is a good way to learn about the nature of film noir. Although I Walk Alone is often mentioned in books about the genre and Too Late for Tears is not, the latter is a much more fully realized example of the style. Look for example at the washed out set design in the Palmers’ apartment and the lighting and camerawork in Scott’s scenes with Duryea. The bleak view of human nature and the number of characters trapped by irresistible, bad impulses are also defining features of what is probably the most completely developed style of American film (Even though, of course, its precursors are European). Why Too Late for Tears isn’t mentioned in the same breath with other noir classics is a mystery to me, because it ranks with the very best of the genre.