Written, Produced, and Directed by Larry Cohen
In an attempt to change the course of his directorial career away from being known only as a genre specialist, Larry Cohen tried his hand at a sweeping biopic. The choice of the late FBI director gave him plenty of sensationalistic material to work with. After watching the film, perhaps it was too much material, as the story is stuffed with historical figures, infamous scandals, violent shootouts, blackmail, and a romantic subplot. Despite the constant threat of the film to collapse under its own weight, Cohen finds a consistent through-line in Hoover’s paranoia and contradictions that makes the film oddly fascinating even as it sometimes feels like random moments and scenes are just being thrown at the screen in hopes that something will stick.
The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is told in flashback by former FBI agent Dwight Webb (a young and almost unrecognizable Rip Torn). Webb is hired by reporter Dave Hindley (John Marley) to dig up the dirt on the recently deceased Hoover’s personal and professional life. Still angry at the Bureau for his firing after twenty years of service because of his affair with a female employee, Webb happily accepts the job.
The flashbacks start with Hoover (played as a younger man by James Wainwright and as an older man by Broderick Crawford) working as a legal clerk at the Bureau during the time when it was best known as an embarrassing part of the Teapot Dome scandal. Sickened by the corruption and morally repulsed by the behavior it breeds among the men who work in the Bureau, Hoover initially makes a name for himself by over-stepping his duties and spearheading the arrest of hundreds of Italian immigrants suspected of being Communists. When he discovers the immigrants are not going to be given due-process and simply deported, he is horrified and takes his fight for their rights to the Attorney General only to lose. Impressed by Hoover’s integrity, the Attorney General offers him the position of FBI director. With no law enforcement experience and at only 29 years of age, Hoover is seen as an unqualified choice, but is also believed to be squeaky clean and easy to manipulate in the first of the film’s many ironies.
While the film traces his rise from a man who still lives with his mother to the most-feared man in America, it touches on his near paranoid sexual repression, the positive and negative changes he made to the FBI, his hypocrisy when it came to corrupt government officials, and the many personal vendettas he nursed as his trusted inner-circle grew smaller. It’s an enormous story, but Cohen tells it with energy and a refreshing fidelity to historical accuracy.
A large chunk of the story is given over to Hoover’s relationships with three men—no, I don’t mean those kinds of relationships.
Actually, the first relationship is with two men: John Dillinger (Reno Carrel) and Melvin Purvis (Michael Sacks). Driven by a desire to take away the mythologizing press given to Dillinger and put it on himself, he turns to FBI Agent Purvis to stop Dillinger once and for all. In a scene leading up to Dillinger’s killing, Hoover even jokes about the man’s upcoming death. When Purvis and his men gun down Dillinger, the agent gets much of the attention from the press, infuriating Hoover. When Purvis leaves the FBI and opens his own private detective agency, Hoover sees to it that he is unable to get clients, eventually driving the former agent to drastic measures in a harrowing scene.
The second relationship that fuels the film comes from Hoover’s adversarial time working under Robert Kennedy (Michael Parks). Annoyed by the young Attorney General’s efforts to reign in Hoover’s power and show him who’s boss, he uses threats of personal blackmail to not only gain back all his power, but also to drive a wedge between the Kennedy family and Dr. Martin Luther King (Raymond St. Jacques) by forcing the younger Kennedy to authorize wire taps and surveillance of the civil rights leader. While Hoover uses the excuse of King’s possible connection to communist groups as an excuse for the surveillance, he is shown in actuality to only want incriminating information against a man whom he sees as yet another possible threat to his power.
The final relationship is the one with the potential to be the most inflammatory. Clyde Tolson (Dan Dailey) was Hoover’s bodyguard and constant companion for over three decades. Since the two showed no real interest in women and were rarely without the others company, rumors floated about a possible homosexual relationship. Cohen never tips his hand if the two men had romantic feelings for each other that they were afraid to express, but he does make the case that nothing sexual ever happened between them. This makes sense, especially when the Hoover shown in the rest of the film is so paranoid about protecting secrets and gathering information on others. It goes to reason he would never expose himself in such a manner to those he considered his enemies (a list that grows ever longer as Hoover ages). Instead of being a source of psycho-sexual drama, Hoover’s relationship with Tolson is portrayed as the most human he had. The two are shown never really wanting anything more from each other than companionship. In an odd way, it’s a touching subplot that allows Cohen and Crawford to bring Hoover at least a few redeeming elements.
But just because Cohen does not take the easy bait when it comes to the relationship between Hoover and Tolson, he is not afraid to delve into the man’s sexually repressive nature. Two scenes have Hoover being seduced by women. In the first scene, he hides his disgust behind paranoia, leveling accusations of a setup. In the second scene, when he is older and more powerful, he is unafraid to simply walk out on the encounter, growling his moral disapproval at the entire idea of sex. Not only is he offended people would want to have sex with him, he disapproves of it in the case of everyone else in the movie, punishing agents for reading Playboy or engaging in sexual relationships outside of marriage. Unfortunately, Cohen never tries to form a theory for why Hoover is so repressed.
Perhaps the reason Cohen never tried to get to the root of Hoover’s discomfort with sex is because the movie presents him as a man who is simply unknowable. There is a huge gulf between what he professes to believe and how he acts. He calls into question the legality of wiretaps when President Roosevelt (Howard Da Silva) wants to use them, but becomes reliant on them to gather information on people of power. He obsesses over the appearance and moral behavior of his agents, but he is overweight and enjoys liquor and gambling on horse races. He decries the favorable press that criminals get during the Great Depression, but he hires his own press agent and sets up staged arrests to personally make in front of reporters. In short, the man is portrayed as the ultimate hypocrite, but if he realized he was acting in a hypocritical manner it’s never made clear.
As much of this uncertainty about Hoover’s actions comes from Crawford’s performance as Cohen’s screenplay. Crawford uses his gruff way of spitting out dialogue to find humor in tragedy. He plays him as a man who understands what people fear and how to use that fear to manipulate them. It’s perhaps the largest contradiction in the character that he knows how to psychologically maneuver people to bend to his will, but that he is not aware how alien he behaves in casual social situations, becoming especially uncomfortable going anywhere without Tolson for company. It’s telling that one of the few times in the film he is shown on his own in a public situation, he proceeds to unwittingly horrify his waiter when he feels he is doing the man a favor by revealing how much he knows about his family. The scene is also a hilarious bit of squirm-inducing comedy before going to the dark places of secrets and blackmail that Hoover finds more comfortable.
Beyond Crawford’s excellent anchor performance, the cast is uniformly solid. Dailey is sympathetic and brings a stoic presence to the potentially thin role of Tolson. Parks (perhaps best known for his role as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in multiple Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez films) is a revelation as Robert Kennedy. While he does not bear a strong resemblance to the late Attorney General (and falls into the same trap of many actors by going overboard on the Boston accent), he shares the same slight build and is boyishly handsome, exuding a playboy confidence bordering on arrogance. He also displays a striking vulnerability that stands in stark contrast to his obvious intelligence.
The film really does boast the best cast Cohen ever put together. Beyond the leads, the supporting roles are filled with veteran scene-stealers and familiar faces. In any given scene, actors like Torn, Marley, Wainwright, José Ferrer, Celeste Holm, Ronee Blakley, George Plimpton, and Cohen regulars June Havoc, Andrew Duggan, William Wellman Jr., and James Dixon pop up to lend some color and shading to important characters in a small amount of screen time. Many of these actors bring with them personalities that audiences carry over from other films, allowing Cohen to use them as a form of storytelling shorthand.
As much as I really like the film, I was slightly frustrated with Cohen’s inability to turn individually brilliant scenes and performances into one great story. The plot races from one famous historical incident to the next while occasionally pausing to provide some shading to Hoover’s personal life. While it is impressive that Cohen is able to fit in so much story in a film running just under two hours, I would not have minded if the film ran ten minutes longer and allowed certain scenes to breathe a little.
Surprisingly, considering there is very little use of special effects, the seams show a little more in this film than in some of Cohen’s other low-budget indies. While he makes good use of locations and maintains a more-or-less consistent level of period details, Cohen has trouble integrating footage shot on sets. Many of these scenes look cheap and haphazard when put up against a scene shot in the actual Justice Department building or FBI headquarters.
Even if The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover fails to fully come together to be as great as some of its best scenes, it is a fascinating picture with a frightening and humorous central performance by Crawford. It plays in the muddy ethical waters of politics and shows that no one can come out clean—no matter if they are just doing their job or bending every rule in the book to build and maintain power. In Cohen’s view, Hoover was no better or worse than the politicians he punished or the ones who tried to punish him. That is probably the scariest message the film can send about our government.
James Dixon Sighting: As one of Hoover’s fellow clerks during the Bureau’s early years.
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