Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

15 July 2016

Boomerang!: a Cameo, Coded Homosexuality, and Lives That Matter

Elia Kazan's Boomerang! from 1947  is a story of a Connecticut city where recently a bunch of corporations and career politicians have been kicked out, and a reform party has come in to run things. Things are great in the city, we are told (and it is true). But Boomerang! is also a crime film (although not a film noir), and so the film begins with an Episcopal minister being shot in the head by an unknown assailant. The killer gets away, running down the street and disappearing.

After a few days, in which the police can't seem to find any leads on who might have done the deed, the newspapers begin dragging the reform party's city officials through the mud. The reform party is obviously upset, and eventually a candidate for the murderer actually is found (a great Arthur Kennedy). He is, however, innocent, and although the film makes that fairly clear to us from the beginning, it is important politically that the party gets a conviction, so they railroad him. This becomes easier and easier when his alibi crumbles, eight people are willing to say they saw him commit the murder, and ballistics people at the police station testify that the bullet that killed the man came from Arthur Kennedy's gun. Still, we know the man is innocent, and better yet, the State's Attorney (played by Dana Andrews) knows it and is willing to fight for this man's freedom.

In a scene that struck me as very typical of the kind of justice in which Kazan was interested, Dana Andrews has a conversation with one of the city officials.

Dana: It's the boy's life.
City Official: If he's innocent! ... And even if he were is it worth it? We've cleaned out the city, we've thrown out the crooks, the grafters. We've made this town a decent place to live! Is one man's life worth more than the community?
Dana: Yes, Mac. It is.
City Official: Ok. Well. You'll have to fight the whole town.

This kind of ethical stance strikes me as typical of mid-century American films about justice, films that believe in innocence until guilt is proven and in the sacrifice of happiness for a whole group of people so that justice can be done and an innocent man not be sacrificed. I have to say that this film made me a bit nostalgic for this kind of ethical stance from law enforcement, although I am not sure if it ever actually existed. These days to say that one innocent man's life is a precious thing has become somehow radical. In our country the police can kill innocent men and then be protected by the governments they serve. And relatives of mine can say things like, "well, if you don't want to stand with the police, don't expect them to come when you need them," when what they mean actually is precisely what this city official in Boomerang! is arguing: Does this man's life really matter if we can keep (the rest of) the people happy?

Dana Andrews
Of course, this is a film, so although the story is based on a real story in which the crime was never solved, Boomerang! tells us who the killer is by telling us very early on in the movie that the murdered man, Father Lambert, was keeping a lot of secrets, since he encountered all kinds of very troubled people in his work. The way that this sequence is coded is, for me, the film's most interesting aspect. We hear in voiceover that "Since he was a man of god, his labors sometimes led him into the strange and secret places of men's souls. He was just and forgiving but he was also a man. And a stern and uncompromising judge of character." Ok, good enough, but then we get a little scene with Father Lambert and a man of about forty who apparently has a "strange and secret place" in his soul. Because it is the only scene with Father Lambert that functions like this (indeed, he was murdered in the film's first few minutes), it becomes clear that this sequence is very significant and that this person is probably Lambert's killer.

But check out how this scene is coded. We're in Lambert's office, and the first thing we hear is:
Lambert: Stop that! Even if I wanted to forgive you I – I couldn't. It's out of my hands. Jim, you're a sick man.
Jim: But father, I –
Lambert: We've been through it all before. I can't help you. A sanitarium perhaps.
Jim: No, I won't. If – if people –
Lambert: It's not people. It's you. I've told you that before. This time, fortunately, no great harm has been done. The next time... No I can't let you go on any longer. It's got to be a sanitarium. Have you... spoken to your mother about this?
Jim [in total panic]: You wouldn't tell her!
Lambert: I haven't spoken to anyone.

The scene continues for a little longer, but then Jim looks at him very strangely and walks off. It is obvious that he did it. But why? What is he protecting? The mother for me is the dead giveaway. What forty-year-old man is concerned what his mother thinks? But of course there is also the sanitarium, the fact that whatever has been going on makes him "sick," the fact that they've "been through it all before". It is worth noticing, too, that the man himself believes that it is people who need to change, and the man of god who believes the "great harm" lives inside the man himself: "It's not people. It's you." he says with real gravity.

Gay and Main
This coded homosexual-as-killer seems to me rather surprising for 1947, especially in the way it is presented, and Boomerang! does not appear in Vito Russo's documentation of queer representation, The Celluloid Closet, but perhaps it isn't quite that rare. Homosexuality is frequently a way of signifying degeneracy in this time period: here we are in a modern-day Sodom, that sort of thing.  

But in Boomerang! homosexuality signifies the unsolvable, the inexplicable, a dark and secret place in the corner of a town that serves to disrupt the peace in a violent, terrifying way, all the more violent and terrifying because it is unspeakable, totally unassimilable to what we can be permitted to know about humanity.

Before I totally let this go, I just want to note that Boomerang! begins by telling us in voice over that although this happened in Connecticut, this is a story that can happen in any city in America. Very specifically the narrator says that "you may have other names for your streets, but whether you call them Center Street or North Street or Main Street, they're not much different from these." Immediately the camera pans down to a street sign. Father Lambert is killed at the corner of Gay and Main.

Arthur Miller Cameo in Boomerang!
There is one more fun thing to point out about Boomerang!, and that is that playwright Arthur Miller appears in the police lineup at one point. The cops are dragging in dozens of men, and we get a single shot of Miller struggling with police. This is a fun cameo. Two years after Boomerang!, Miller's play Death of a Salesman would appear on Broadway, change the American theatre fundamentally, and win the Pulitzer Prize as well as every Tony Award for which it was nominated - including one for... Arthur Kennedy. Lee J. Cobb, the original Willy Loman, also appears in Boomerang! as the chief of police.