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The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977)

Considering this is an AIP production directed by cult fave Larry Cohen, I shudder to think just what we might find in these private files of the one time FBI director. Considering Cohen directed the It’s Alive trilogy, Q The Winged Serpent and The Stuff, whatever we think we’re going to find is sure to be a bloody, grotesque mess.

As it is this feature film is anything but. It’s a tame Coles Notes retelling of the famed “top cop” of the nation that casts an effective Broderick Crawford as the aging Hoover and an equally suited James Wainwright as the younger edition during the FBI’s formative years. The movie begins where it will ultimately end with the title character’s death.

“I wonder what’s gonna happen to the files now?” asks newspaperman John Marley. From that point on it’s narrated in a straight forward flashback as told by Rip Torn who will also appear in the film as an agent working under Crawford’s leadership. So it’s back to the twenties and the beginning of Hoover’s career that sees Wainwright a good fit to play the younger version of Brod Crawford with June Havoc cast in the role of his doting mother.

To get the sexual question underway, Wainwright will reject the advances of Ronee Blakley. His paranoia has him convinced she’s been put up to her attempted seduction in order for opponents to have something “on him.” From here on out the film will occasionally use homophobic slurs aimed at Hoover and again see the elderly Crawford/Hoover rejecting Celeste Holm at a later point in the film.

Time for some of those Coles Notes scenes to appear. John Dillinger gets shot down at the biograph theater. Machine Gun Kelly captured. Pressure mounts from the press for Wainwright to make an actual arrest of his own. This leads to the arrest of Alvin Karpas with Wainwright front and center. Cue another guest bit. This time it’s a 60 second cameo by Brad Dexter.

On the topic of guest bits, this is one of those perfect films when it comes to spot the aging star turning up for a day or two of work. Alongside Dexter, Marley, Havoc and Holm, don’t blink and you’ll notice Lloyd Nolan, Howard Da Silva, Jack Cassidy in his final role, George Plimpton, Andrew Duggan and then there’s those playing in support of Crawford in the final two thirds of the film once we move past the depression era. Raymond St. Jacques as Martin Luther King, Michael Parks playing Robert Kennedy as a pawn to be toyed with by Crawford, Dan Dailey in his final role as Crawford’s longtime bodyguard/associate and one time Oscar winner Jose Ferrer as the man waiting in the wings to take over the FBI director’s chair.

With this cast list I’d swear I was tuning into 1976’s Won Ton Ton the Dog Who Saved Hollywood if I hadn’t spotted Crawford as Hoover.

Keeping up with the facts of Hoover’s era we have clips of WW2 and plenty of gangster shootouts via stock footage that I’d wager were carried over from some of AIP’s earlier productions like Bloody Mama or Dillinger. It’s a nice touch on occasion when Cohen would film Crawford in black and white to make it appear as if he was in some of those old newsreels. As the years pass by in seconds on screen you’ll see Da Silva as FDR, Duggan as LBJ along with the assassinations of the Kennedy’s and King. And through it all stands Crawford pulling strings and essentially blackmailing his way through the politics of Washington.

This is by no means a boring film if you know the characters and your history. It’s actually kind of fun to see the historical points carried out by familiar faces. I do think it would have fared much better as a two part 4 hour television event when scenes and characters might have been fleshed out a bit better. There’s just two many “faces” coming and going way too fast to make a lasting impression overall on this low budget film that needs a bigger canvas.

I do like the fact that it gave the aging Oscar winner Broderick Crawford another kick at the can playing a title role in which he received top billing. If I’m correct that’s something that hadn’t happened in his career since a pair of 1970 titles, Ransom Money and Gregorio and His Angel.  I must admit I haven’t seen either of those films but the Angel flick sounds interesting if you want to read up on it at the IMDB. I’ve always been a Crawford fan thanks to his appearing in most any genre I would tune into when first discovering classic films. Everything from haunted house pictures like The Black Cat to comedy gangster roles in Larceny Inc. Of course Born Yesterday and Noir efforts like Down Three Dark Streets and his Oscar winning role in All The King’s Men to the beloved westerns I grew up on opposite the likes of Glenn Ford in The Fastest Gun Alive among others. His final screen appearance would come in 1982’s Liar’s Moon.

This first time viewing for me was made available thanks to the film being released by the made on demand DVD wing of MGM. So if you too are looking to place some checkmarks beside the screen credits of a good dozen well known actors then make the effort to check this one out. On that note, maybe it’s time I checked out the Eastwood/DiCaprio edition, J. Edgar.

7 Comments »

    • Really a bit of a rare title. Just glad it turned up at a store I frequent selling used discs. Grabbed it right away. I like Cohen’s work overall. Nice variety of stuff he put out in the early years.

  1. That was the first thing I noticed when I saw the film’s one-sheet poster: all those old-time names! The list kept going on and on…and then you say that Brad Dexter was involved as well. The only person I didn’t recognize was James Wainwright…and he got the special “I’m the biggest star of the bunch” box around his name on the poster!

  2. Splendid review and indeed choice Mike-I love the way that you champion these films that are “off radar” to most other writers.
    I remember enjoying the film very much at the time-what I remember enjoying most was Crawford’s old school professionalism
    balanced with Michael Parks edgy method style in their scenes together especially as Hoover and Kennedy loathed each other.
    Cohen’s film actually played the Art House circuit at the time in the UK as esteemed critic Robin Wood called the film probably the
    best film about American politics ever to come out of Hollywood.
    Count me in the Crawford fan club…just recently I tracked down the new French Blu Ray of BADLANDS OF DAKOTA one of the
    very few A Westerns that I have never seen. The Crawford/Frances Farmer duo is intriguing and also in the impressive cast is an
    incredibly young Robert Stack. As history,like most vintage Westerns, the film is total nonsense but as entertainment it’s fast moving
    fun,especially as the film also features a very nasty Lon Chaney Jr.

    • Thanks for the kind words. I’ve never seen that western but will be on the lookout for it. We’ll put about the different eras of acting styles between Crawford and Parks. They played well opposite each other.

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