Movies then and now just are not the same Films of the past did a better job of telling the story

July 19, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

No movie I've seen in the past six months has lit me up as much as "Boomerang."

It's such a rare feeling, too: the buzz, the increasing excitement, the sense of stepping through the membrane of the screen until you are completely inside the movie, wandering among the characters, desperate to know what happens next. And you know that when it's over, you'll want to hector people about it, try to get them to feel some of the excitement that you felt as it unspooled before your fascinated eyes.

But the gag here is that I'm not talking about "Boomerang," the mild Eddie Murphy comedy currently on screens, not a bad movie to be sure, but nothing near enough to great to inspire passion in so jaded a moviegoer as myself. No, I'm talking about "Boomerang," the black and white, 1947 docu-drama, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Dana Andrews, Lee J. Cobb and Arthur Kennedy.

It happened to be showing on a cable network called American Movie Classics, which appears to exist primarily to rescue the movie past from the oblivion it otherwise is drifting into, now that most video outlets have turned to tape versions of Crown Books, with all the best sellers and none of the classics.

But indeed, "Boomerang" was only one of the really interesting movies I saw on AMC during a week's vacation. Another was "Dark City," a 1950 film noir that introduced a large chunk of beefcake and suet known as Charleton Heston to American audiences. It wasn't any good at all; and yet in its strange and twisted way, it was still better than any American movie I've seen professionally in months, with the possible exception of "Howards End." I also saw Robert Siodmak's "The Killers," from 1946, Burt Lancaster's entry vehicle: It was fantastic. And then I saw "Psycho," by Alfred Hitchcock. Another classic. Wow, what a week.

All of which leads to a question I've posed before and even tried to answer: Were movies then better than movies now? Usually such inquiries are front-loaded in favor of the past: A favored critic's stunt in this area is to compare a given year with 1939, generally conceded to be the high-water mark of American film culture, with literally dozens of memorable films, from "Wizard of Oz" to "Gone With the Wind" making their debuts. This is conceptually unfair from the get-go, because, of course, we remember selectively: we remember the "good" movies and the mediocre and mundane simply do not stick in our memories.

But what I propose this time is a slightly different inquiry because neither "Boomerang" nor "Dark City" has made it into the canon. They are run-of-the-mill studio products, unlegendary and unremembered. I'd never even heard of either of them, except that an image of the young Chuck Heston, his bright plaid sports coat seemingly stuffed with pork sausage, his aquiline profile half-obscured by the dark-moon crescent of a jaunty fedora was somehow conjured up in my mind by the title "Dark City." It's a photo from a volume I have on film noir.

And it's probably true that even their makers didn't (and don't) think much of them. Kazan made "Boomerang," he writes in his autobiography "A Life," as a "cure" from a disaster called "Sea of Grass," possibly the only bad movie anyone ever made with both Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in it. (I've seen it, too; I remember only that Hepburn's character was named "Lutie." But I'll still bet it's more watchable than "Lethal Weapon 3" or even Eddie Murphy's "Boomerang.") "Boomerang" certainly isn't a part Kazan's classic body of work -- "On the Waterfront," "Panic in the Streets," "Splendor in the Grass," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "East of Eden."

Novelties in another time

He made it fast and somewhat casually, but it boasted two true novelties. First, it was, as I say, a docu-drama, a re-creation of a case in Connecticut so amazing that it had actually caught the attention of a pillar of American journalism (In its credits, the movie proudly boasts "Based on a story in The Readers Digest"!). And the second was that instead of filming it in a studio, he took advantage of new technological breakthroughs in equipment portability and filmed it on location, in Stamford, Conn.

So some of its appeal may be nostalgic. The movie penetrates and displays the face of small city America in 1947 with an extraordinary facility; it's truly a lost world of small shops, flourishing street culture, great fedora hats and black, humpy cars. But Kazan was never a softy: the movie, far from being an encomium to American values of the sort that would please a Dan Quayle today, is instead a critique of them, and it examines a municipal legal system, under great political pressure,

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