Friday, September 21, 2012

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977)

          The most startling thing about The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is that it’s not particularly startling. Presented as an exposé of the legendary lawman who led the FBI from 1935 to 1972, writer-producer-director Larry Cohen’s docudrama compiles a portrait that’s equal parts gossip and history, but never quite commits to a viewpoint. For instance, the movie dramatizes the rumors that Hoover was gay—an explosive revelation if true, given the G-Man’s willingness to blackmail political figures with evidence of their sexual habits—but Cohen never takes a firm position on whether Hoover and his longtime assistant, Clyde Tolson, were lovers, as many suspected. Similarly, Cohen shows that Hoover was merciless in his crusade against communists, to the point of obsessive paranoia, but Cohen also presents giants including Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. as being equally devious. This makes Hoover seem less unique and therefore less worthy of examination. Furthermore, Cohen’s biggest narrative leap—depicting Hoover’s alleged use of material in his “secret files” for blackmail purposes—merely rehashes familiar facts such as the Kennedy family’s association with mobster Sam Giancana. Sure, it took balls for Cohen to make this movie just five years after Hoover’s death, but the lack of a strong perspective makes The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover muddled, even though it’s brisk and entertaining.
          While Cohen’s filmmaking is as sloppy as ever, that’s all to the good in this context; shaky cinematography and ugly lighting create a sense of footage captured on the fly, suiting the spy-game milieu. However, iffy performances dull the intended impact. Star Broderick Crawford, a 1949 Oscar winner for All the King’s Men, was far from his prime when he made this picture. Large and unhealthy-looking, he sometimes seems like he’s being filmed during a rehearsal, because his acting is weirdly disconnected. (That said, he springs to life during a tense scene with fellow veteran Celeste Holm, whose character attempts to seduce Hoover.) Thanks to the film’s choppy editing, tracking the arcs of supporting characters is challenging—people are introduced poorly and then disappear for long stretches—but a couple of actors figure prominently. Dan Dailey is somewhat bland as Tolson, but Michael Parks delivers a colorful turn as Bobby Kennedy, and Rip Torn lends cynical edge as a G-Man who tangles with Hoover. (Others in the large cast include Howard Da Silva, José Ferrer, John Marley, and Lloyd Nolan.) Ultimately, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is middling, but it’s noteworthy as the most serious-minded entry in Cohen’s filmography, which is dominated by cheerfully trashy drive-in fare. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover: FUNKY

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