Friday, April 27, 2012

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover

My knowledge of J. Edgar Hoover is limited. Here's about all I know: he was director of the F.B.I. for nearly 50 years, supposedly had dirt on everyone of importance during that time, was a lifelong bachelor, and there are rumors and innuendo he wore dresses and was a repressed homosexual. Hoover remains an enigmatic and fascinating figure of modern American history as evidenced by the recent movie J. Edgar directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Considering how long he was around, how many high-profile events he was a part of, and the intrigue surrounding his character, Hoover is ripe for cinematic treatment.

Well, I'm not here to review the recent Hollywood effort, but rather the nearly forgotten The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977) directed by Larry Cohen. Cohen is the low-budget wunderkind responsible for the mutant baby It's Alive trilogy, Q the Winged Serpent, some Blaxploitation vehicles,  and other genre fare. He's also the writer behind recent high-concept scripts like Phone Booth and Cellular. His trademark involves taking schlocky subject matter and infusing it with wit, dark humor, and quirky characters. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is clearly a case of Cohen's ambition exceeding his craft. Despite good casting and touches of authenticity, the movie lacks focus and coherence on its subject.

The film opens with the announcement of Hoover's death in 1972 after 48 years as FBI chief. As a young man played by James Wright, we see him progress from lawyer in the Justice Department during the Palmer Raids to his appointment to the FBI and his campaign against John Dillinger and other gangsters of the 1930s. Later, played by Broderick Crawford, Hoover clashes with the like of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King as he builds up the reputation of the FBI. All the while, he engages in wiretapping, snooping, and other ethically questionably and potentially illegal actions to assemble files on his enemies and others.

The main problem with The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is how it tries to cram 48 years worth of history into less than two hours of screen time, and as a result, very little resonates. Prominent historical figures are introduced, setting up what looks like conflict, and then they're hardly mentioned again. Certain developments occur off-screen, leaving us to guess what happened. Only the bare-bones information is included, leaving out any details that would bring character or humanity to any of the events. It feels like we're watching a passionless recitation of facts rather than any sort of narrative. There are moments, but nothing builds; they just happen. 

Both Wright and Crawford are good as Hoover. Crawford looks very much like the real-life Hoover; it's uncanny. There are some great moments throughout the film, and the period details, given the low budget, are effective in conveying the past. Unfortunately, the movie is literally a cast of dozens, and even though they look right, so few are established. Too often, I was left confused trying to remember or figure out who everyone was.

What makes the film unique is how it was apparently filmed in the actual locations Hoover frequented and worked. Reportedly, Cohen was unable to get permission from the FBI to film at their offices, but one day, then-First Lady Betty Ford found out Dan Dailey, who plays Hoover's longtime assistant (and rumored lover, although the movie seems to refute this) Clyde Tolson, was in town for a movie. She invited Dailey and Crawford to the White House for lunch, and Cohen, ever the opportunist, called all the locations he wanted to film at and mentioned how his stars were dining at the White House, making it seem like they had official backing. When the movie was screened, it was reported both Democrats and Republicans took offense, and apparently there was some kind of legal dust up between the filmmakers and the FBI over the movie's release.

In the end, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover doesn't really delve deep enough into any of its potential stories or offer much insight into Hoover. I think this is a case where the story behind the scenes is more interesting than the actually movie that was made. Think about it: a B-Movie horror director makes his would-be magnum opus, a bio-pic about America's top cop, in defiance of the FBI and in the process bamboozles a number of government agencies to let him film at their offices and training grounds. There's a delicious irony there.

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