By Chris Neilan.
Between 1945 and 1957 Greek born Elia Kazantzoglou had no directorial equal in Hollywood. The films he made in that period were nominated for fifty Oscars, twelve of those for A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and launched the careers of Marlon Brando and James Dean. It was in this zeitgeist-defining purple patch that he co-founded the Actor’s Studio and began a tectonic shift in American cinema away from theatricality and artifice and toward Stanislavskian psychological realism.
His appearance before the House Un-American Committee in 1952 changed things somewhat. Kazan had been a member of the Communist party for about a year in the 30s, as had several other members of the Group Theatre, a New York collective co-founded by Lee Strasberg. When he initially appeared before HUAC as a “friendly witness” Kazan refused to name names, but subsequent assurances that this refusal would end his career changed matters. Having been long divorced from any allegiance to communist ideals and claiming to have developed a distaste for them since he ended his membership with the party, Kazan gave the committee the names they were looking for, amongst them Clifford Odets and Strasberg’s future wife Paula Miller – all names, it should be noted, that the committee already knew. He kept his career, but drew scorn and ill-repute. In his later years the great director-turned-political pawn was denied several awards and much recognition before the Academy saw fit to (controversially) honour him with a lifetime achievement award in 1999. When he was presented with the award, it was before a split room – Warren Beatty, Meryl Streep and Kathy Bates stood and applauded; Ed Harris, Ian McKellen and Nick Nolte sat on their hands.
Before his mid-career hot streak and the moral/political quagmire HUAC sucked him into, Kazan claimed to have found something of his creative self on a quasi-documentary crime procedural called Boomerang! (1947). His previous features had not been noteworthy, indeed he himself called his 1947 western The Sea of Grass “terrible”, but Boomerang!, produced by illustrious documentarian and The March of Time mastermind Louis de Rochemont, offered Kazan his first opportunity to break melodramatic constraints and push toward something more realistic and morally complex whilst still working within mainstream genre norms. A true crime story which is at pains to assert its real world credentials, the film concerns the murder of an upstanding priest in Connecticut, and traces the attempts by the police to identify the perpetrator, the state attorney’s trying of the case, the pressures posed by local politicos and the complicating presence of the media. Employing a multi-threaded procedural narrative with a talented cast headed up by a wonderfully grizzled Lee J. Cobb, Kazan’s docu-noir is refreshingly free of hard-boiled cliché, and its objective viewpoint and focus on procedure prefigures contemporary multi-character crimes series’ like The Wire (2002-2008).
That said, the film doesn’t contain any of the raw humanity his later masterpieces would revel in, and its iconoclastic elements remain shackled by the production code theatricality he was yet to slaughter. A dissenting and cynical portrayal of the American justice system and media for instance is softened by the emergence of an unambiguously heroic protagonist, Dana Andrew’s state attorney, whose obvious moral heroism provides a dramatic propulsion to the climactic courtroom sequence which is close to gripping, but simultaneously undermines Kazan’s portrayal of a corrupted and co-opted system of governance. By presenting a hero who comes from within that system, Kazan reassures his audience in typical studio era style, cushioning and nullifying the subversive viewpoint.
Boomerang!, with its headline apeing exclamation point, received a New York Critics Circle award for best director and an Oscar nomination for best screenplay, but the passing of time often reveals weaknesses. The biggest problem, and the element which has aged least well, is the jarring crime-renactment voiceover which introduces the story, explaining the true story underpinning the narrative and directing the viewer in no uncertain terms how to feel about it. Contemporary crime cinema has normalised moral complexity, and the preaching didacticism of Kazan’s newsreel-style voiceover is hard to stomach. In their time, crime pictures like Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932) used similar techniques to justify onscreen representations of amoral characters relishing in anti-social, sociopathic or otherwise puritan-bothering activities, pre-empting the appearance of their gangster ne’erdowells with social conscience messages. These days such direct address wouldn’t escape the confines of schlocky crime re-enactment TV shows, let alone make it into an Oscar nominated screenplay.
These voiceovers unquestionably undermine the many pleasures to be found in Kazan’s convincingly executed multi-character procedural, which marked the first emergence of his personal style, and of the psychological realism which many of the twentieth century’s greatest onscreen icons developed so mercurially, from Brando and Dean to Pacino and De Niro. A film of qualified pleasures then, but more pertinently a document wherein the greatest disseminator of psychological realism in cinema’s history began to change the way actors acted. And perhaps equally significantly, a studio crime picture which credibly tackles a real-life unsolved murder and refrains from administering false resolution, a forerunner for later examples of unresolved endings, from Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) to Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) to Atom Egoyan’s recent Devil’s Knot (2013). Whether or not you can excuse the self-interest Kazan displayed when his back was against the wall, no-one can deny the influence of his work.
Chris Neilan is an author, screenwriter and film critic currently based in South Korea. His debut novel Abattoir Jack is available from Punked Books.
Boomerang! was released on Blu-ray and DVD by Eureka Entertainment! as part of their ‘Masters of Cinema’ series. Features include a 1080p transfer of the film on Blu-ray, with a progressive encode on the DVD, trailer, ‘Elia Kazan – An Outsider’ 1982 Documentary about the filmmaker, 44 page booklet with a new essay by Glenn Kenny, vintage interview material, original article that inspired the film, rare behind-the-scenes imagery.