Review: The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

“…[W]e are afflicted with a secret police of a sort which I do not think a democratic republic ought to support. In theory, the FBI is necessary. For the investigation of crime. But in all the years that the FBI has been in existence, the major criminals – the Mafia, the Cosa Nostra – have operated freely and happily … the FBI has not shown much interest in big crime. Its time has been devoted to spying on Americans whose political beliefs did not please the late J. Edgar Hoover, a man who hated Commies, blacks and women in more or less that order.” Thus Gore Vidal (in Matters of Fact and of Fiction); thus, too, Larry Cohen, whose biopic of “America’s top cop” delivers a kick to the bureaucratic teeth with such uninhibited zest that as much exhilaration rubs off on the audience as outraged wrath.

There’s plenty of that, too. But even if you have no more objection to the FBI than that its history led Mervyn LeRoy, back in 1959, to direct a perfectly lousy movie entitled The FBI Story, there’s a lot to enjoy here. For all that Robin Wood and others may pontificate about Cohen’s socio-sexological subtleties, the main appeal is that of good old-fashioned, hard-hitting movie journalism, roughly in the tradition of Fuller, or Wilder in his Ace in the Hole mode. It may be muckraking, but by now, with the Freedom of Information Act handily providing access to all kinds of disturbing evidence about Bureau techniques (see the recent revelations in connection with Jean Seberg’s death, for instance), and with critics of the G-men (ranging from Jessica Mitford to Rex Stout) supplying lots of distressing anecdotage, there is surely plenty of muck to be legitimately raked. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is a post-Watergate movie, right enough, and it revels in the fact.

Here and there, a little bit too much. The frame of the film is, Kaneishly, events surrounding Hoover’s death in 1972. An ex-agent (Rip Torn) tells us not only his own history but also that of the Bureau and its puritanical chief, all the while harping on the existence of “private files” whose contents are dynamite – so much so that, even as he unfolds the tale, Nixon aides are shredding them as fast as possible. Despite this, Hoover’s chief aide Clyde Tolson (Dan Dailey) manages, at film’s close, to leave Bureau Headquarters with a noticeably bulging bag. A few months later, Torn tells us over a wrap-up montage of newspaper headlines, Watergate exploded and down came a government, “as if J. Edgar Hoover had reached out from the grave” and done in Tricky Dick & Co. in person.

Now, the Torn character is a fiction, a composite of real aggrieved ex-agents and also of Larry Cohen’s private feelings about J. Edgar Hoover. This is a legitimate enough device but, given the film’s insistence on telling us unpalatable and long-suppressed truths, it’s also a little suspect, because we get a hell of a lot about this one fictitious agent. Mervyn LeRoy’s film also gave us a made-up hero, complete with exceedingly dull and irrelevant home life, but parody doesn’t seem to have been Cohen’s intent; nor should it have been. Chronicling a broken romance to show how the FBI interferes to an astonishingly petty extent with the harmless private lives of its own staff is, in the context of the story of Hoover and his Bureau, a waste of time, telling us nothing we couldn’t be told in one voiceover sentence, or simply left to assume. We also have the brief career of Torn’s father (William Wellman Jr., looking remarkably like his father), presumably also fictitious, and what we’re supposed to get from that is anyone’s guess. None of this really takes up very long, but in a movie that crams 48 years into 110 minutes, every minute counts, and we get these inventions when we could be adhering more to the known facts.

private files
Marching to J. Edgar Hoover's beat

It is, indeed, that rare thing, a movie that’s rather too short. It could stretch to 149 minutes (the length of LeRoy’s opus) with no trouble at all. As it is, the film shoots by. Cohen is much more concerned with the politics of the FBI than with the conventions of gunplay and sleuthing. We’ve seen enough movies where Twenties automobiles go skidding round corners and razor-brimmed hats decorate the slicked-down hair of gents with sinister violin cases. Very little footage is given over to rat-a-tat-tat, but the very privacy of those “private files” is a little frustrating. There are surprising omissions: Were the G-men involved in framing the Rosenbergs or Alger Hiss? Was James Earl Ray acting on Bureau orders? Why did Hoover conceal Lee Harvey Oswald’s FBI links? Obviously, Cohen hasn’t got the answers to these mysteries and others, and has simply left out all reference (or all but fleeting reference) to them in order to avoid anticlimax. But anticlimax is what we get anyway, especially when time is devoted instead to Agent Torn’s messed-up sex life, or his getting ticked off for smoking on duty or not shaving often enough or wearing too bright a tie. It seems unarguable that Hoover was petty about such trivia, but maybe Cohen is a little petty as well: is anyone really going to be shocked by the revelation that all of Hoover’s best-selling books were ghosted by persons considerably less well-paid for them than he was? Or by the fact that he didn’t get billed in restaurants? This may be reprehensible, but it surely isn’t uncommon.

Though the epilogue to this tale is filmed with dash, it’s a fairly whopping assumption. Cohen also permits himself some visual innuendo hinting, ever so indirectly, at Hooverian involvement in the Robert Kennedy assassination. Which brings us back to the question of how much license should be allowed in a movie of this sort. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of our not knowing minor details: Is Carrie DeWitt (Ronee Blakley), the girl whose advances the youthful Hoover primly rejects, a real person, a composite, Cohen guesswork or out-and-out invention? How about Dave Hindley (John Marley), the reporter who smears Hoover and Tolson as homosexuals? One doesn’t know, and one can’t be sure that Cohen isn’t simply loading his argument. Certainly, he willfully misleads with regard to Melvin Purvis, the slayer of Dillinger, who did kill himself with the same gun (as we know from the end-captions of John Milius’s 1973 movie), but not until decades later, when he was dying; Cohen shows the shooting, Purvis’s departure from the Bureau and his suicide in consecutive scenes, with the actor in question (Michael Sacks) growing no great deal older, so that the unknowing will assume the passage of only a few months.

All of this is a shame, for the film is highly enjoyable, and quite willing to fling mud in every direction. Though Robert Kennedy (Michael Parks) is shown as almost the only man who dares stand up to Hoover, he is also (like his brother) wide open to blackmail; Democrats are as venal as Republicans, and FDR has surely never been depicted as unpleasantly in a movie as he is here, by Howard Da Silva. Though Cohen’s Hoover is a monster, he is a monster of some stature and some pathos, and some of his employers are altogether shiftier. The opening credits reveal that some of the film – quite a lot, by the look of it – was shot at Bureau Headquarters in Washington, but without permission “or censorship”; given this, and the probability of a slender budget, the appearance of the film is very striking, and its sheer ambition, like its cheek, commands respect. Some of the actors are wasted (Jack Cassidy as Damon Runyon and June Havoc as Hoover’s castrating mother in particular – was the latter cast for reasons of elaborately Freudian iconography, recalling Gypsy?); but most are very good, and James Wainwright (Hoover as a young man) and Broderick Crawford (Hoover from about 40 to death) are brilliant. Crawford, in particular, has never been better. Here is a portrait more chilling by far than his Willie Stark in All the King’s Men; for Crawford here incarnates – and even manages to make us grudgingly respect – a man corrupted by something more insidious than mere power. Crawford’s Hoover is terrifying by virtue of his absolute conviction at all times that he is right, and therefore that what is right must perforce always coincide with whatever his personal interests are.

© 1980 Pierre Greenfield

THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER
Screenplay, direction, and production: Larry Cohen. Cinematography: Paul Glickman. Music: Miklos Rozsa.
The players: Broderick Crawford, James Wainwright, Michael Parks, Rip Torn, Dan Dailey, Jose Ferrer, Ronee Blakley, John Marley, Raymond St. Jacques, Howard Da Silva, Celeste Holm, Michael Sacks, Lloyd Nolan, June Havoc, Jack Cassidy, William Jordan, Brad Dexter, William Wellman Jr., Lloyd Gough.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.