It adds to our interest in a movie to learn that it is based on a true story. It would be a mistake, however, to infer from this that movies are better when they are based on something that really happened rather than based on nothing more than a writer’s imagination. And this is because whereas a work of fiction can be structured so that everything is developed smoothly and is satisfactorily resolved by the end, reality is often messy and incomplete.
Boomerang! is a good example of that. It was made during a period in which a lot of filmmakers were on a realism kick, wanting to make movies based on true stories and filmed on location. It begins with a Reed Hadley, semi-documentary, Louis de Rochemont style of narration, with “America, the Beautiful” playing in the background to put us in the proper, patriotic mood: “The basic facts of our story actually occurred in a Connecticut community much like this one.” It seems quaint now when we hear him say that, for location filming is not something we care about today. The prologue tells us that many “actual characters” were used in filming this movie, whatever that means, since the crime on which this movie is based occurred in 1924, twenty-three years earlier.
Hadley’s narration accompanies us through the murder of Father Lambert and the outrage on the part of the citizens of the community. This community, Hadley informs us, had recently benefitted from a reform movement, which ousted the machine politicians that had run things in the past. Throughout the movie, there are several references to the way the Reform Party has brought decency to this town. In a flashback, we see Lambert sitting next to Madge Harvey (Jane Wyatt), chairman of the committee in charge of city-improvement projects, like parks and playgrounds. She and Lambert are in complete agreement as to the worthwhile nature of the latest project, a recreation center, which is being promoted by Paul Harris (Ed Begley), who believes his bank may be able to arrange for the purchase of the land needed for that project. As we later find out, Madge is married to State’s Attorney Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews).
But then we have another flashback, in which we see Father Lambert dealing with two different men, as narrated by Hadley: “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.” The first man, we later find out, is John Waldron, played by Arthur Kennedy. We see Lambert give him something, smile, and pat him on the shoulder. But Waldron angrily turns away, wadding up the piece of paper he was handed and throwing it away. From what we find out subsequently, Waldron was presumably asking for a handout, but all he was given instead was “a lecture and a pamphlet.”
This is followed by a conversation Lambert has with a second man, Jim Crossman, who is around forty years old, judging by the actor, Philip Coolidge, who plays this role. Lambert tells him that he is sick and needs to be institutionalized: “This time, fortunately, no great harm has been done. But the next time…. No, I can’t let you go any longer. It’s got to be a sanitarium.” It would be reasonable to assume that Jim works for the church in some capacity in order for Lambert to know him well enough to have him in his office. Lambert asks Jim if he has spoken to his mother about his problem, at which point Jim becomes frantic at the thought she might find out. From the remarks by Father Lambert, we had already accepted the fact that Jim was mentally ill and needed to be institutionalized. So, why this reference to his mother?
In the movies, a mother can be an ominous character, suggesting some kind of emotional problem on the part of her son, especially if he still lives with her. This is not invariably the case, however. In the movie Marty (1955), we never conclude that there is anything mentally unbalanced about the title character, played by Ernest Borgnine, even though he is in his thirties and lives with his mother. It appears that he supports his mother, now widowed, and that goes a long way in reassuring us. And we find out that he is unmarried, not because he is too attached to his mother, but simply because, as he puts it, he is a “fat, ugly man.”
But in other movies, a close relationship between mother and son is a bad sign. In The Organization Man, William H. Whyte, Jr. says that the kind of man a major corporation wants for upper management is one who loves both his father and his mother, but his father a little bit more. As in real life, so too in the movies, a man who is more attached to his mother than his father is thought to be a “mama’s boy,” as in Home from the Hill (1960). Another example of this was dramatized in The Caine Mutiny (1954).
For some reason that escapes me now, I once happened to be watching the Lifetime Channel, where two women were talking about how much they liked that channel because it has stories about communication and feelings. As one of the women noted with regret, men don’t like to talk about their feelings. In response, the other woman expressed exasperation, saying, “And why is it when you do find a guy that’s really nice, they all have these strange relationships with their mothers!” As she says this, we see a grey-haired, bespectacled woman, sitting on a couch with a contented smile on her face, while her adult son lies there with his head in her lap, sucking on a baby bottle.
In His Girl Friday (1940), Cary Grant does not want his ex-wife, Rosalind Russell, to marry Ralph Bellamy. As soon as Grant finds out that Bellamy lives with his mother, and that Bellamy is planning on him and Russell living with his mother for the first year of their marriage, Grant knows that those marriage plans don’t have a prayer. After all, Grant went through the same thing in The Awful Truth (1937), when his wife, played by Irene Dunne, planned on marrying Bellamy right after her divorce from Grant became finalized. And there too, Bellamy lived with his mother. In the end, he broke off his engagement with Dunne, and he and his mother moved back to Oklahoma.
It is not just the son’s attachment to his mother that causes problems. Maternal jealousy can be a factor as well. In The Awful Truth, Bellamy’s mother despises Dunne before she has even met her, and she tells her son she wants him to keep his mind off women. Even in Marty, when Borgnine does find someone, Betsy Blair, who might be willing to marry him, his mother tries to sabotage their relationship so she can to maintain sole possession of him, saying Blair is too old for him, and that she is just “one step away from the streets.” His mother concludes by saying she doesn’t want him to bring Blair to the house anymore.
Near the end of The Awful Truth, when Bellamy decides to break off his engagement to Dunne, he says, “I guess a man’s best friend is his mother.” Or, as Anthony Perkins would later say in Psycho (1960), “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” This takes us beyond the situation where a man may have difficulty establishing a normal relationship with a woman on account of his attachment to his mother, and moves us into the area where a man’s relationship with his mother is an aspect of his insanity. Other examples are Strangers on a Train (1951) and While the City Sleeps (1956).
And so, since Jim presumably still lives with his mother, even though he is forty years old, we gather that his mental problems must have something to do with his relationship with her and the sexual distortion that implies. We never learn exactly what Jim has done, but everything points to his being a child molester. The remark about no great harm having been done this time suggests that he was caught fondling a little girl, and Lambert is afraid that the next time Jim will go further.
As for Waldron, we know that anger can be a motive for murder, but killing a priest because he gave Waldron a pamphlet instead of some money is a bit of a stretch. On the other hand, a child molester who is afraid his mother will find out and that he will be put in a sanitarium definitely has a motive for murder. So, why would the movie let us know who Lambert’s killer was right in the beginning? Sometimes murder mysteries do that. In the television series Columbo, we always found out in the beginning who the murderer was, and the fun was watching the cat-and-mouse game played between him and the title detective. So, I settled in with that assumption and continued to watch the movie.
The Morning Record is the local newspaper, whose star reporter is Dave Woods (Sam Levene). We know he’s hardboiled because we repeatedly see him typing with just his two index fingers. The Record is owned by a man who preferred the previous administration rather than the Reform Party, and so his paper is playing up the story of Lambert’s murder, making a political issue out of it, putting pressure on Chief Harold Robinson (Lee J. Cobb), State’s Attorney Henry Harvey, and the politicians at City Hall. The pressure is intensified by the fact that an election is coming up soon, and failure to find the killer may lead to a loss for the Reform Party.
When Harvey gets home, he and Madge discuss the case, and then she talks about the recreation center, saying they may even be able to have a swimming pool. Harvey says, “Well, you can’t ever say you haven’t any kids to fool with. You’ll have hundreds hanging around….” Her face falls, and he realizes he made a mistake in referring to the fact that they haven’t been able to have any children. We gather that this is the reason she has immersed herself in projects that children would benefit from.
Eventually, Waldron is arrested by the police in Ohio for carrying a .32 revolver, like the one that was used to kill Lambert. Witnesses that were present the night Lambert was shot pick him out of the lineup, and the ballistics confirms that his gun is the murder weapon. Waldron says he wants a lawyer, but Chief Robinson says, “You’ll get one later.” A uniformed cop, an older man that has been on the force for a long time, wants to beat a confession out of Waldron, complaining that they are wasting time and losing a lot of sleep. Robinson refuses to go along with that. I suppose that is a reflection of the decency brought about by the Reform Party.
But in one sense, the uniformed cop is right: giving a man the third degree is a tough job when you can’t just beat it out of him. After an eight-hour shift, the detectives who have been grilling Waldron are exhausted, heading for home, while another shift takes their place, working hard to keep Waldron awake while they badger him with questions. After two days of keeping Waldron from getting any sleep while they continue the nonstop interrogation, the detectives wonder how much longer they can keep it up. But finally, Waldron gives in and just signs whatever confession they stick in front of him. Worn out from it all, Robinson says, “What a way to make a living!”
At this point, I figured that the time had come when a clue would be found indicating that Jim might be the actual murderer. And so it began to seem, at first. Though Harvey is to be the prosecuting attorney, he shocks the court on the first day of the trial by announcing that he intends to prove that Waldron is innocent. Pretty much everyone is upset by this, but none more so than Jim, whom we see in the audience with a scared look on his face. I guess he figures that only if Waldron is convicted will he be safe from suspicion. The judge calls Harvey into his chambers and threatens him with prosecution. Chief Robinson is angry, but he does break up a lynch mob outside the courthouse. Even Waldron’s lawyer is upset with this intrusion on his role as defense attorney. But it turns out that Harvey’s doubts are not brought about by any clue regarding Jim. He tells one of his politician acquaintances that he just believes that Waldron is innocent.
When Harvey gets home, Paul Harris, the banker played by Ed Begley, is waiting for him. He admits that he owns the land the bank is supposed to buy for the recreation center, and if they lose the election on account of Harvey’s refusal to prosecute, there will be no recreation center, and he will be ruined. Furthermore, he tells Harvey that Madge gave him $2,500 to help him buy that land, and that wouldn’t look good if that came out.
I doubt this is one of the facts of the true story on which this movie is based, for I found no hint of it in researching it. Instead, it appears to be an expression of attitude on that part of Richard Murphy, who wrote the screenplay, and Elia Kazan, who directed this movie. In particular, they are saying, “See what happens when a woman tries to compensate for not having children by getting involved in do-gooder activities. She ends up making foolish decisions, causing problems for her levelheaded husband.”
The next day, Harvey presents evidence that Waldron did not commit the murder, despite all the political pressure and even blackmail brought against him. He gives reasons to doubt the eyewitness testimony, the ballistics report, and the validity of the confession. There is a preposterous scene in which Harvey has an assistant point Waldron’s loaded revolver at his head and pull the trigger in order the prove that the firing pin was faulty, and thus the gun could not have been the murder weapon. That could have been demonstrated without such theatrics. Following this, Dave, the reporter played by Sam Levene, passes a note to Harris, letting him know that he has found out about his land deal. As a result, Harris commits suicide by shooting himself right there in the courtroom. Somehow, I doubt seriously that these are some of the “basic facts” of this “true story.” But the main thing is that Harvey did not present any evidence that the murder was actually committed by Jim in an effort to conceal the fact that he is a pedophile.
Anyway, Waldron’s innocence having been established, he is released. We see Jim leave the courtroom, while Dave happens to glance at him over his shoulder. Later, Dave learns that Jim was killed in an automobile crash. He was fleeing from police for speeding, when he suddenly swerved, presumably intending to kill himself. Dave has a look that indicates he has put it all together and knows that Jim is the killer. But the only reason we believe he knows the truth is that we know the truth, and we project our knowledge into this character. At the same time, Reed Hadley, the narrator, tells us that the case was never solved, again accompanied by “America, the Beautiful.”
In other words, there was no pedophile. It was a total fabrication. In its confused way, the movie is admitting that no one ever found out who killed Father Lambert, while assuring us that justice was served by the death of this fictional character Jim. The reason for this is easy to understand. If the movie had stuck to the facts, if all the made-up stuff with Jim had been edited out, then the movie would have ended with the unsatisfactory conclusion that while an innocent man was cleared, the guilty man, whoever he was and whatever his motive, was never caught.
This movie cheats, trying to have it both ways. It presents its story as based on actual events and filmed on location to give it an aura of authenticity, and then it concocts an imaginary child molester to be the villain so he can be killed off at the end, giving the movie the kind of resolution that we typically have in a work of fiction.