Friday, April 27, 2012
The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
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.
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.
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.