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Tag Archives: Harmon Jones

Boomerang (March 5, 1947)

Boomerang is another fact-based drama produced by Louis de Rochemont, the maker of the “March of Time” series of newsreels. Like de Rochemont’s other films, The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), it features stentorian, “newsreel”-style narration by Reed Hadley, a number of the actual participants in the case playing themselves in minor roles, and a commitment to verisimilitude that is less cut-and-dried than the filmmakers would have the audience believe.

For my money, Boomerang (or Boomerang!, as it appears on the cover of a notebook in the opening credits) is far and away the best of the first three films de Rochemont produced. A great deal of that is due to the direction by Elia Kazan.

Kazan was coming off the success of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), but he was still better known for his work in the theater than in Hollywood. I think that Kazan’s enormous talent as a film director and his strong visual sense are often underestimated, but there’s no denying that he was an actor’s director. The actors in Boomerang all turn in powerful, fully realized performances, and I think a lot of that is due to Kazan’s experience directing for the stage.

Boomerang is based on a real case that took place in 1924 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. (To sidestep raw feelings, the production was filmed in Stamford.)

A beloved priest named Father Lambert (Wyrley Birch) is killed by a single .32 caliber bullet fired point blank into the back of his head on Main Street one evening. When a prime suspect does not immediately materialize, the reform party newly in power is lambasted in the press, which leads to overzealous police tactics, which means plenty of round-ups and arrests, but not much else. Finally, a drifter named John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy) is picked up by police in Ohio. Waldron has a .32 revolver in his pocket, was passing through Connecticut at the time of the murder, and is identified by numerous eyewitnesses as the shooter.

Waldron also makes a signed confession, but only after he’s subjected to days of intense grilling by police chief Harold F. “Robbie” Robinson (Lee J. Cobb) and Detective Lt. White (Karl Malden), as well as a parade of other police officers and a psychiatrist, Dr. William Rainsford (Dudley Sadler).

It seems like an open-and-shut case, and a slam-dunk for State’s Attorney Henry L. Harvey (Dana Andrews), but after talking to Waldron, Harvey has doubts about his guilt, which he shares with his wife, Madge Harvey (Jane Wyatt), before doing some investigating of his own.

When called upon to make his case in court, Harvey says, “I thought I had the case going perfectly straight and then all of a sudden it comes back and hits me right between the eyes.”

Boomerang brilliantly depicts a number of concepts that were fairly new to the public at the time of its release — the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, especially a large group of eyewitnesses, and the idea that a man who was not guilty of a crime might still make a full confession to police under duress.

Kazan also shows exactly what abuse of power looks like. It’s not committed by scheming men of pure evil, it’s committed by police officers like the one played by Lee J. Cobb — decent men with a strong moral code who are desperate to make a conviction, and are absolutely sure that they have the right man. Kazan also does a good job of weaving a story of petty, venal, small-town politics into the larger crime story and courtroom drama.

The character Dana Andrews plays is based on Homer Cummings, who would go on to be the U.S. Attorney General under Franklin D. Roosevelt, but it’s not a biopic. It’s also not a wholly nonfictional telling of the real case, since there’s a character created from whole cloth named Jim Crossman (Philip Coolidge), who may or may not have murdered the priest, and who seems to have been created purely to satisfy audience members who need to see some sort of justice done.

Luckily, false notes like the Crossman character are few and far between in Boomerang.

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13 Rue Madeleine (Jan. 15, 1947)

Henry Hathaway’s 13 Rue Madeleine is a spiritual sequel to his espionage docudrama thriller The House on 92nd Street (1945). The address this time around refers not to the headquarters of a Nazi spy ring in New York City, but to Gestapo headquarters in Le Havre, France, during World War II.

Like The House on 92nd Street, 13 Rue Madeleine owes a debt to the style and presentation of Louis de Rochemont’s “March of Time” newsreels. (De Rochemont served as producer of both films.) I enjoyed The House on 92nd Street, but judged purely as a cinematic experience, 13 Rue Madeleine is the superior film.

A lot of that is due to the film’s star. James Cagney is dynamic and arresting in every role I’ve ever seen him play, and I would pay to watch a film in which all he did was order and consume room service by himself.

In this film, Cagney plays Robert Emmett “Bob” Sharkey, an instructor of potential agents in a U.S. agency called “O77.” (The organization is clearly based on the O.S.S., but the name was changed because of certain plot elements that we’ll get to in a moment.)

Early in the film, Sharkey’s boss, Charles Gibson (Walter Abel), informs him that one of his students is a German mole named Wilhelm Kuncel. The mole turns out to be one of his most promising pupils, William H. “Bill” O’Connell (Richard Conte). O’Connell looks and acts as American as apple pie, and during training grew especially close to blond, fresh-faced Jeff Lassiter (Frank Latimore), who never suspected a thing.

Gibson orders Sharkey to pass O’Connell and to not let on what he knows, in order to feed false information to the Germans through O’Connell. Alas, O’Connell proves to be even cannier than Sharkey’s bosses could have predicted, and this decision leads to a series of tragedies.

Conte isn’t an actor I could have picked out of a lineup a year ago, but after seeing him now in several roles, I think he’s a tremendous performer, and I look forward to a lifetime of watching his films. It doesn’t matter for his role as a double agent in 13 Rue Madeleine that he doesn’t look the slightest bit “German.” In a wordless scene in a transport plane over Europe, as O’Connell and Lassiter are preparing to jump, O’Connell suddenly sees what the straight-arrow Lassiter can’t hide, and the look on his face is chilling.

Anna and the King of Siam (June 20, 1946)

John Cromwell’s Anna and the King of Siam isn’t nearly as well known as The King and I, the Technicolor extravaganza starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr that was made a decade later. Both films tell the same story, but The King and I does it in the form of a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. I saw The King and I when I was a kid, and have strong memories of certain scenes, but not of the film as a whole. So I came to Anna and the King of Siam relatively fresh, and was able to watch it without constantly thinking of Brynner’s iconic performance, at least most of the time. The one big difference — if memory serves correctly — is that the later, musical version of this tale was more of a love story. It’s not as if it ended with a marriage, or Kerr being added to the king’s harem or something, but there was a romance of some sort that grew over the course of the film. The closest Anna and the King of Siam gets is a couple of scenes between Anna and the king that end with the king leering, and seeming to contemplate her in a sexual fashion.

Anna and the King of Siam is the first filmed adaptation of Margaret Landon’s 1944 book of the same name. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck reportedly bought the rights to Landon’s book immediately after reading the galleys. As is often the case, the real-life Anna Owens was a considerably more interesting and complicated person than she was portrayed in the book or any of the films about her. This is largely due to her own self-invention. Anna Leonowens was born in poverty in India in 1831, the daughter of Sgt. Thomas Edwards, a soldier in the private army of the Dutch East India Company, and his wife Mary Anne Glasscott, an Anglo-Indian woman. Later in her life, Leonowens took pains to hide her origins, and claimed that her father’s rank was lieutenant (later she claimed he had been a captain), and that she had been born in Wales. It’s important to remember that these fabrications were not merely for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. As a widow and a single mother, Leonowens faced an uphill battle in life, and almost certainly would have faced discrimination if her mixed-race heritage had been known.

While Anna and the King of Siam doesn’t delve deeply into Anna’s background, there is never any intimation that she is anything but the most proper of British ladies. The Anna Owens of the film, played by Irene Dunne, embodies the best values of the “modern” British empire, while King Mongkut (Rex Harrison) represents an older form of governance; repressive, misogynistic, autocratic, and superstitious.

Reportedly, most Thai who saw the picture were shocked and angered by the portrayal of their revered nineteenth century king, and the film was banned in Thailand due to “historical inaccuracies.” It’s hard to argue with this assessment. Landon’s book and Leonowens’s own recollections were by all accounts at least partially fabricated, and overemphasized Leonowens’s role in the king’s life, as well as the harshness of his regime. And there’s the larger question of how well any white actor — even one as talented as Rex Harrison — can portray an Asian character.

Granted, the yellowface portrayals in the film look ridiculous, especially Lee J. Cobb as the “Kralahome,” or prime minister, who appears for much of the film stripped to the waist, covered with dark makeup, and sporting a pomaded pompadour. But, like Harrison, he delivers a nuanced performance, and in their scenes together they drop the stilted line deliveries that they have in their scenes with Anna or her son Louis (Richard Lyon). (They continue to speak English, of course, but the syntactical variance is still a nice touch.)

If one ignores questions of historical accuracy, Anna and the King of Siam is an excellent and involving story of cultural differences and the challenges and rewards of education in the face of adversity. The principal actors all give great performances, especially the beautiful Linda Darnell as the king’s newest and most alluring wife, Lady Tuptim. It’s a role that easily could have been one-note, but Darnell is able to create a sexy yet repulsive character who grows more complicated as the film goes on, and eventually becomes the central tragic figure of the picture. Also, Anna and the King of Siam looks fantastic. It won two Oscars, one for best black and white cinematography and the other for best art direction, and they were well-deserved.

Shock (Jan. 10, 1946)

Alfred L. Werker’s thriller Shock, which had its premiere on January 10, 1946, and went into wide release on February 1st, stars Vincent Price as the murderous Dr. Richard Cross and Lynn Bari as his manipulative assistant and lover, Nurse Elaine Jordan. If you were to play a drinking game in which you took a shot of whiskey every time one of the characters in the film said the word “shock,” you would likely require medical attention after the first 20 minutes.

Price wasn’t always a horror icon. In Tower of London (1939), which was as much a costume drama about Richard III as it was a horror picture, he was a supporting player. In Brigham Young (1940), he played the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith. In Hudson’s Bay (1941), he played King Charles II. In Laura (1944) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945), he was the aggrieved “other man.” A tall, stately man born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1911, Price was educated at Yale, where he studied art history and fine art. He radiated charm and erudition. He was a fine actor, and probably could have distinguished himself in any genre. As chance or fate would have it, however, his vocal delivery and arch facial expressions were perfectly suited to the ironic cinematic world of the macabre, and he is best remembered for his roles in horror pictures such as House of Wax (1953), The Fly (1958), House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959), and the innumerable Roger Corman-produced, Poe-influenced horror pictures that he appeared in throughout the 1960s.

While Shock is not a horror film, it has elements of one, and it’s the earliest role I’ve seen Price play in which he demonstrates some of the ghoulish mannerisms that would later make him famous. He doesn’t come close to the histrionics of some of his later horror roles, but there are some glimmerings.

The film opens in San Francisco, where a young woman named Janet (played by the somewhat sickly looking ingénue Anabel Shaw), is checking into a hotel, where she is to meet her husband, Lt. Paul Stewart (Frank Latimore), a former P.O.W. who is finally returning from World War II. Lt. Stewart doesn’t show up when he is supposed to, however, and as his emotionally fragile wife frets alone in her hotel room, she witnesses a murder. From her balcony, she can see through the window of an adjacent room. A man and a woman are arguing, and eventually the man settles the argument with a heavy candlestick.

Witnessing a murder drives Janet into a state of catatonic shock. When her husband finally arrives, she is unresponsive. When world-renowned psychiatrist Dr. Cross is brought in to consult in the case, Janet doesn’t recognize him, but Dr. Cross immediately realizes that the cause of Janet’s state of shock is the murder she witnessed him committing.

Janet is placed in Dr. Cross’s care, and he ignores the Hippocratic oath in order to save his own skin, giving Janet insulin treatments she doesn’t need, as well as using other unethical methods of driving her deeper into a state of shock so she will never be able to identify him. Cross isn’t portrayed as a total monster, however. That role is reserved for his lover, Nurse Jordan, a Lady Macbeth type who goads him on when his resolve to be wicked falters.

Shock is a programmer, to be sure, but it’s a well-made one, and kept me enthralled for all of its 70 minutes.

The House on 92nd Street (Sept. 10, 1945)

House92ndStWhen The House on 92nd Street was released on DVD in 2005, it was as part of the “Fox Film Noir” collection. This is misleading, since it’s more of a docudrama than it is a noir. It’s a historically important film, however, since it was one of the first to feature location shooting for nearly all the exteriors, and one of the first to skillfully blend fact with fiction while presenting itself as essentially factual. (Charles G. Booth won an Academy Award for best original story for his work on this film.)

The House on 92nd Street stars William Eythe as Bill Dietrich, a second-generation German-American who becomes a double agent for the F.B.I., Lloyd Nolan as his contact in the Bureau, Agent George A. Briggs, and Signe Hasso as the leader of the spy ring, Elsa Gebhardt. The film is a fictionalized account of the F.B.I.’s 1941 operation against the Nazi spy ring led by Fritz Joubert Duquesne. It was one of the largest counterspy operations in U.S. history, and led to the conviction of 33 people. In reality, however, none of them were involved in anything quite as grand as the secrets of the atomic bomb, which is the MacGuffin in The House on 92nd Street. And the real Dietrich was not the all-American boy portrayed by Eythe. He actually was a German-born man named William G. Sebold who served in the German army during World War I but became a naturalized American citizen in 1936. Presumably the war was still too fresh in the minds of the American viewing public for them to accept a German as the hero of a picture.

This film also shows the beginnings of J. Edgar Hoover’s massive publicity campaign for the F.B.I., which he disguised as a simple display of information. In reality, of course, Hoover carefully controlled the information that the public saw about the F.B.I., twisting and distorting as necessary. A good example of this information control is a scene early in the film, in which we see an indoor enclosure the size of an airplane hangar, filled with filing cabinets. The booming voice of the narrator (Reed Hadley) explains that this is the F.B.I.’s collection of 100 million sets of fingerprints, a number that seems unlikely, given that the population of the United States was fewer than 140 million people in 1945. Were they counting each finger? The message, of course, is that there is no hiding from the F.B.I. If you commit a federal crime or spy for another nation, they will find you. (This was also the message of the radio show This Is Your F.B.I., which began broadcasting dramatizations of real federal cases on American Broadcasting Company stations in the spring of 1945, all with the cooperation of Hoover, who called it “the finest dramatic program on the air,” and “our show.”)

The House on 92nd Street was directed by Henry Hathaway, but much of its style can be attributed to producer Louis de Rochemont, who created the “March of Time” newsreel series. When he lacked the footage he wanted, de Rochemont would stage clever recreations, but his newsreels were presented as wholly factual. It’s important to keep in mind that American audiences were less savvy about media trickery in 1945. After all, it had only been six years since people tuned into Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast midway through the program and thought Martians were vaporizing people in New Jersey.

The House on 92nd Street begins with a compilation of actual footage of people entering and exiting the German embassy, which is interesting. Of course, the characters in this film watch a great deal of surveillance footage. Some of it is real, some is not. It’s not that audiences in 1945 didn’t realize that the film was a blending of reenactments and actual footage, it’s the overall message they were taking away from the film that was perhaps not completely accurate. For instance, in Thomas M. Pryor’s September 27, 1945 review of the film in the New York Times, he wrote the following:

Since the picture, produced by Twentieth Century-Fox with full cooperation from the F.B.I., was completed some months ago, the secret of the atomic bomb has been revealed. Now the picture carries a simple and restrained foreword explaining that the “Process 97” which the Nazi agents are attempting to steal was in reality a part of the atomic bomb formula. It is to the producers’ everlasting credit that this information is not sensationalized in the film.

In reality, however, there is no evidence that there was a single “missing piece” of the atomic bomb process that spies were in danger of transmitting back to Nazi Germany. And of course, film by its very nature presents a sensationalized picture of reality.

Also, a big deal is made at the beginning of the picture that every person playing an F.B.I. agent, aside from the principals, is an actual F.B.I. agent. This, however, does not make what is depicted any more or less truthful than if they were played by actors, but it seems to.

The House on 92nd Street is not a bad picture by any stretch. Taken at face value, it’s tense and exciting. And director Hathaway, when not constrained by the documentary-style approach of de Rochemont, creates some great sequences, such as when Dietrich gets himself arrested just to get in touch with Briggs at the F.B.I., or the meeting between Dietrich and his co-conspirators at a waterfront dive. And the final shootout, which involves tear gas grenades and a surprising disguise, is fantastic. If you’re looking for a film that uses the framework of a docudrama to present a tense film noir, however, you’d be better off watching Anthony Mann’s excellent T-Men (1947).