Today: June 12, 2024

Boomerang!

Elia Kazan was one of the most divisive figures in 20th Century Hollywood. Co-founder of the Actors Studio that brought Method acting to the American stage, Kazan nurtured a generation of actors including James Dean and Marlon Brando before directing them in films like A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront. Though Kazan is one of the greatest influences on Hollywood ideas of what constitutes good acting, his legacy has been tainted by the fact that he chose to work with the House Committee on Un-American Activities and revealed the identity of a number of left-leaning actors whose careers suffered directly as a result. While Kazan was nominally a member of the communist party at the time, many people have since come to question both his integrity and his politics, questions that are absolutely central to the inscrutable moral compass of Boomerang!

The film opens with the kind of pseudo-documentary flourish that was common to many left-leaning films of the period: Presented with a street scene, the audience are told that this is a typical American town and that the events of the film could have happened in any town in the country. Leftist films of the time were proud of their realism, as leftist filmmakers believed that making people aware of the truth about their society was the first step in encouraging real change.

Having introduced us to the town, Kazan sets about showing us the building blocks of civil society; how reformist politicians had swept out the cynical politics of old and forged a new contract with the people to bring about a happier and healthier community. Central to this contract is the figure of a kindly priest whose moral authority forms a sort of bridge between people and politicians. However, this benign patriarchy is rocked to its core when a mysterious figure shoots the priest and promptly disappears. With the police unable to find a suspect and the papers fanning the flames of discontent, a rival group of politicians begin to make trouble forcing the supposedly benign reform-minded politicians to put pressure on the police. Desperate to get results, the police haul pretty much everyone in for questioning before deciding that a jobless drifter murdered the priest. In fact, they are so convinced of the man’s guilt that they effectively torture him into confession.

This section of the film is surprisingly trenchant. Much like David Simon’s TV series The Wire, Kazan shows how greed and ambition can pervert social institutions and result in elected officials turning those institutions against the people they were created to protect. Both the tone and focus of the film lead us to expect a full-on leftist tirade: Be vigilant citizens, for even Main Street USA can feel the chill from fascism’s long and ugly shadow. However, having shown us how easily the machinery of American government can run haywire, Kazan proceeds to lead us in an entirely unexpected direction.

Once the trial begins, the action shifts from society as a whole to the conscience of local state’s attorney Henry L. Harvey (Dana Andrews). Despite being a paid up member of the progressive party, Harvey is approached by a rival group and asked to set the drifter free in return for being made their candidate for the post of Governor. Sensing that their boy’s loyalties might be straying, the reformist party approach Harvey and inform him that they are all involved in a corrupt real-estate scam and that failure to secure a conviction would not only kick them out of office but also lead to the revelation that his wife mistakenly put up the money for the real-estate scam.

Trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea, Harvey decides against protecting his wife and uses both clear-thinking and oratorical skill to not only prove the drifter’s innocence but also expose the mendacity of the entire local political system. The film ends with the revelation that while Harvey never made it to the governor’s mansion, he did wind up being made Attorney General thereby proving that the system works as an innocent man went free without the person who set him free being victimised by his political opponents.

The problem with the film’s conclusion is that Kazan is manifestly trying to have his cake and eat it by revealing American society to be corrupt and self-serving apart from a few heroic individuals whose absolute corruption doesn’t stop them from doing the right thing from time to time. The ambivalent tone and clunky denouement are a result of Kazan’s studied refusal to either commit to the idea that American society is corrupt or to the idea that the system works thanks to the actions of a few heroic individuals.

There is a tendency in American popular culture to treat the legal process as a moral crucible. Well-meaning bourgeois films like My Cousin Vinny and 12 Angry Men suggest that all of humanity’s moral impurities can be boiled away by the system while more politically radical films such as JFK and Amistad draw attention to the failings of the legal system as a way of demonstrating an urgent need for reform. Kazan’s film refuses to go down either of these paths and opts instead to provide a portrait of studied ambiguity that tantalises and intrigues whilst offering little in the way of emotional satisfaction. Is Henry L. Harvey a good man? Is the American political system beyond repair? It would have taken a braver person than Kazan to venture an opinion.

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