When it’s on: Monday, 2 July (11.40 am)
Louis De Rochemont, of March of Time and The House on 92nd Street fame, returned to his semi-documentary style of dramatic storytelling with his production of 1947’s Boomerang!, a courtroom drama based on the real life murder of a Connecticut priest.
First, some background. Homer Stille Cummings was the 55th US Attorney General, serving Franklin D Roosevelt for six years during the 1930s. A graduate of Yale University and Yale Law School, he practised law in Stamford, Connecticut, before spending much of the 1900s serving as Mayor of Stamford. Further steps up the political ladder seemed certain, but his nominations for Congress were each time narrowly defeated and he eventually became State Attorney. It was during this period in 1924 that Father Hubert Dahme, a much loved parish priest was shot and killed on a street corner in Bridgeport. Witnesses to the murder gave a vague description of the gunman, which didn’t help an investigation that was under intense pressure to get results. Ultimately, they picked up former serviceman and vagrant, Harold Israel, on a gun possession charge, and accused him of the murder when the firearm matched the type of weapon used on the priest. Over several days’ ceaseless questioning, a confession was squeezed out of Israel. Eyewitnesses identified him as the killer, and a waitress who had waved to him from her cafe window placed him in the right place and timeframe.
As county prosecutor, Cummings described the mass of evidence against Israel as building up to ‘a perfect case.’ Yet he also informed the court that he had a duty to protect the innocent as well as convict the guilty, and proceeded to undermine the evidence. In his eyes, too much of it was essentially circumstantial, particularly the confession, which was extracted when Israel was so deprived of sleep he would have owned up to anything. The dismissal he gained – the case remains unsolved – gained national attention. At the time, he was criticised by his own Democratic party for not simply going for the easy prosecution, but ultimately his decision to ensure an innocent man didn’t suffer due to the public need for retribution and police interrogation methods was praiseworthy.
It’s this story that forms the basis for Boomerang!, which closely follows many of the facts. What it adds is a political dimension. The State Attorney works for a recently elected ‘reforming government’, which adds weight to the necessity for a quick prosecution. The authorities’ city planning work is at jeopardy – they need to be re-elected in order to see through the work and feel this won’t happen if a killer isn’t found. It emerges later that personal investments by people high in the political food chain are also at risk. After weeks of investigation, fuelled by public anger and the possibility of being superseded by the FBI, police chief ‘Robby’ Robinson (Lee J Cobb) gets a break with the arrest of itinerant loser, John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy). The suspect ticks all the boxes. The confession is duly prised out of him and a watertight case is presented to Attorney, Henry J Harvey, to get the prosecution that means everyone will be able to go home feeling their jobs have been done.
That’s the idea at any rate, but the sensibilities of Harvey himself are also a factor. Presented as a virtuous family man with a loving and supporting wife (Jane Wyatt), Harvey’s suspicions about the evidence are piqued when he talks to Waldron. Behind bars and sure of his own death, Waldron simply breaks down in frustration and despair, telling the prosecutor his confession was only given under duress and that the waitress who identified him was motivated by personal reasons. In court, Harvey begins unravelling the evidence, forgoing the easy conviction and weakening the work of the police. It’s a risk that could cost him everything, but he believes in justice and comes to be certain that Waldron is nothing less than the classic patsy.
It’s good stuff, able to stick closely to what really happened because the original story was so compelling. As in The House on 92nd Street, the film showcases a Reed Hadley narration that asserts its basis in fact, though the playing of ‘America, the Beautiful’ at the beginning and the end, which underlines the sense of fairness displayed by the upstanding Harvey, is a bit of an unnecessary, mawkish addition.
The whole thing lives or falls on the central performance, which is delivered by Dana Andrews. An actor who walked tall in 1940s American cinema, Andrews looked nothing like the bookish Cummings, his real life inspiration, but he knew how to play characters who were facing moral dilemmas. Under pressure from the local government, the police and the public, the conflict within him is barely expressed, but it’s there beneath the surface, the jaw clenched a little too tightly, the careful, solemn movements as he paces the courtroom. It’s a performance at odds with the histrionic acting of others, but Andrews never shouts, screams or grows manic in order to make his point, either in court or to the viewers. The careful measure one would expect of a real life attorney is there; Andrews lets the words he speaks make him the heart of the film, and it works.
Director Elia Kazan, who was a year away from his first Oscar (for Gentleman’s Agreement), didn’t think much of Andrews, explaining ‘There was very little you could do with Dana. He could learn three pages in five minutes. He had a fantastic memory, even though he’d been up late drinking the night before. He’d come to work, dress up, and we’d roll him out. His style was okay in the movie, because he was playing a lawyer, and essentially there wasn’t supposed to be too much going on inside of him. But unfortunately that kind of acting leaves you with the feeling that there was nothing really personal at stake.’ It seems he wasn’t overly impressed with the entire project, criticising much of the cast and interested solely in directing the film in a semi-documentary fashion. As such, there are few artistic flourishes, though the murderous act is rather hauntingly shot as a disembodied hand from the top right of the frame holding a gun to the priest’s head.
The filming of the killer running from the scene of the crime is pure noir, as is the descent of Waldron into a hell he can barely comprehend. Another film may have told the tale from his perspective, his fateful liaison with the Coney Island Cafe waitress (Cara Williams) being the trigger for despair. Instead, it’s the bigger picture we’re interested in, and the film is better for focusing on the moral and political dilemmas faced by everyone. There’s a fine insight into the role of the press in directing public opinion, and a fantastic scene in which Waldron leaves the courtroom with his police guard (a young Karl Malden) and is nearly torn apart by a vulture-like mob of people hungry for retribution.