Elia Kazan knew that he’d made a dud with the underwhelming Hepburn/Tracy vehicle The Sea of Grass (1947), even going as far as to discouraging audiences from seeing it. But that crushing disappointment evidently resulted in a new sense of creative purpose, with the director joining forces with newsreel producer Louis de Rochemont to make Boomerang! (1947), a pioneering docudrama that seized on immediate postwar anxieties to shine a light on a new form of civic malaise. Based on a real case and fuelled by his appropriation of the neorealist palette, Kazan filmed on location in Stamford, Connecticut and turned the town in on itself; civil blood making civil hands unclean.
Boomerang! opens with the murder of a priest in a street full of witnesses. As time ticks by with no suspect to speak of, the local institutions – from the police to the politicians – find themselves under inordinate pressure to solve the case. Through Dana Andrews’ state attorney Henry L. Harvey, Kazan ruthlessly shows how that pressure reached a stage where an image of justice became an acceptable substitute for the real thing in the name of the greater good. We see a climate of fear raging in Bridgeport, with Kazan skilfully constructing the circumstances that will ultimately allow a miscarriage to happen. From media sensationalism to political positioning, it’s a fatal brew of institutional self-interest. The breadth of Kazan’s gaze exposes the civic neuroses of a scarred country still reeling from World War II.
Mob mentality isn’t limited to the general public; it ascends like a black fog all the way to the top. Boomerang! anticipates Chinatown’s (1974) appropriation of noir tropes to uncover the uselessness of civic progress. But, where Polanski’s masterpiece represented a nihilistic abandonment of hope, Kazan clings onto it though Harvey. The citizens of Bridgeport are humans caught in a political drama and, while most are shaped by it, some – like Harvey – are brave enough to shape it. Once a man is arrested for the crime, it becomes clear that the civic order is an illusion that can be conjured by officials and, as the “perfect case” is built against him, justice itself seems to be a construct susceptible to moulding and kneading by special interests. Boomerang! goes further still, painting postwar American life as a grand fiction; a story that can be weaved through the pathological drive for conformity. Certainty is pursued to a fault, and society is happy to ignore the psychological casualties of the war. The accused is a veteran and, like Freddie Quell in The Master (2012) half a century later, he’s a man out of time, stunned to passivity by his experiences; “You gotta get movin’, you can’t wait.”