18 Days of Paranoia #3: The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (dir by Larry Cohen)

The 1977 film, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, opens in 1972.

J. Edgar Hoover, the much-feared and long-serving director of the FBI, has just been found dead at his home and it seems like the entire city of Washington, D.C. is scrambling.  Not only are people jockeying for Hoover’s job but they’re also wondering what might be found in his secret files.  As quickly becomes apparent, Hoover had a file on everyone.  While Presidents lauded him and the press portrayed him as hero, Hoover spent nearly 50 years building up a surveillance state.  Hoover said it was to fight criminals and subversives but mostly, it was just to hold onto his own power.  Even President Nixon is heard, in the Oval Office, ordering his men to get those files.

Hoover may have known everyone’s secrets but, the film suggests, very few people knew his.  The film is narrated by a former FBI agent named Dwight Webb (Rip Torn).  Dwight talks about how he was kicked out of the FBI because it was discovered that he not only smoked but that he was having an adulterous affair with a secretary.  “You know how Hoover was about that sex stuff,” he says, his tone suggesting that there’s more to the story than just Hoover being a bit of a puritan.

We flash back to the 1920s.  We see a young Hoover (James Wainwright) as a part of the infamous Palmer Raids, an early effort by the Justice Department to track down and deport communist subversives.  Though Hoover disagrees with the legality of the Palmer Raids, he still plays his part and that loyalty is enough to eventually get him appointed, at the age of 29, to be the head of the agency that would eventually become the FBI.  Hoover may start out as a relatively idealistic man but it doesn’t take long for the fame and the power to go to his head.

Hoover (now played by Broderick Crawford) serves a number of Presidents, each one worse the one who proceeded him.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Howard Da Silva) is an avuncular despot while the Kennedy brothers (William Jordan as John and Michael Parks as Bobby) are two rich brats who think that they can control Hoover but who soon discover that Hoover is far more clever than they realize.  Hoover finds himself a man out-of-place in the 60s and the 70s,  Suddenly, he’s no longer everyone’s hero and people are starting to view the FBI as being not a force for law enforcement but instead an instrument of oppression.

Through it all, Hoover remains an enigma.  He demands a lot of from his agents but he resents them if they’re too successful.  Melvin Purvis (Michael Sacks) might find fame for leading the manhunt that took down Dillinger but he’s driven to suicide by Hoover’s cruel treatment.  Unlike Clint Eastwood’s film about Hoover, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover suggests that Hoover was not gay but that instead, that he was so repressed that he was essentially asexual.  When one woman throws herself at him, he accuses her of being a subversive and demands to know how anyone could find him attractive.  He’s closest to his mother and when she dies, he shuts off his emotions.  His own power, for better and worse, becomes the one thing that he loves.  He’s married to the FBI and he often behaves like an abusive spouse.

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is an interesting film.  It’s an attempt to do a huge American epic on a less than epic budget.  At the start of the film, the low budget is undeniably distracting.  The 1920s are essentially represented by a back lot and two old cars.  The scenes of the FBI dealing with gangsters like Dillinger and Creepy Karpis feel awkward and slapdash.  But, as the film’s timeline gets closer to what was then the modern era, the film’s story tightens up and so does Larry Cohen’s direction.  (One get the feeling that Cohen was, perhaps understandably, more interested in the Hoover of the 60s and the 70s than the Hoover of the 20s and 30s.  There’s a sharpness to the second half of the movie that is just missing from the first half.)  Broderick Crawford gives a chilling performance as a man who is determined to hold onto his power, just for the sake of having it.  The scenes were Hoover and Bobby Kennedy snap at each other have a charge that’s missing from the first half of the film.  Michael Parks does a great job portraying RFK as basically being a spoiled jerk while Crawford seems to relish the chance to play up the resentful, bitter old man aspects of Hoover’s personality.  The film ultimately suggests that whether the audience previously admired RFK or whether they previously admired Hoover, they were all essentially duped.

Though the film never quite overcomes the limits of its low budget, it works well as a secret history of the United States.  In 1977, it undoubtedly took guts to make a film that portrayed Roosevelt and Kennedy as being as bad as Nixon and Johnson.  (It would probably even take guts today.  One need only rewatch something like The Butler or Hyde Park on Hudson to see the ludicrous lengths Hollywood will go to idealize presidents like Kennedy and dictators like FDR.)  While this film certainly doesn’t defend J. Edgar Hoover’s excesses, it often suggests that the president he served under were just as bad, if not even worse.  In the end, it becomes a portrait of not only how power corrupts but also why things don’t change, regardless of who is nominally in charge.  In the end the film’s villain is not J. Edgar Hoover.  Instead, the film’s villain is the system that created and then enabled him.  The man may be dead but the system remains.

Previous entries in the 18 Days of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau


Cleaning Out the DVR #16: Keep Calm and Watch Movies!

cracked rear viewer

All last week, I was laid up with sciatic nerve pain, which begins in the back and shoots down my left leg. Anyone who has suffered from this knows how  excruciating it can be! Thanks to inversion therapy, where I hang upside down three times a day on a table like one of Bela Lugosi’s pets in THE DEVIL BAT , I’m feeling much better, though not yet 100%.

Fortunately, I had a ton of movies to watch. My DVR was getting pretty full anyway, so I figured since I could barely move, I’d try to make a dent in the plethora of films I’ve recorded.., going all the way back to last April! However, since I decided to go back to work today, I realize I won’t have time to give them all the full review treatment… and so it’s time for the first Cleaning Out the DVR post…

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A Movie A Day #37: The Challenge (1970, directed by Alan Smithee)

A U.S. spy satellite has crashed onto an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean.  Both the United States and an unnamed communist country (described as being “a fifth-rate China,” but obviously meant as a stand-in for not only China but North Korea and North Vietnam as well) have both lay claim to the satellite.  To prevent a possible war, the two countries agree to a compromise.  One American and one communist will be dropped off on the island and will fight to the death.  The survivor gets the satellite.  The communists send the disciplined Yuro (Mako).  The American select Jacob Galley (Darren McGavin), a grizzled Vietnam veteran-turned-mercenary.  Jacob is armed with the latest advancements in weaponry, including a double-barreled sub-machine gun.  Yuro is armed mostly with his wits and an endless supply of booby traps.  Jacob and Yuro fight to a stand still, growing to respect each other even as each tries to kill the other.  However, both countries are willing to cheat to win the challenge.

Originally made for television, this is one of the many films to have been credited to Alan Smithee, the pseudonym that directors used to use whenever they felt that the finished film, usually because of studio interference, did not properly represent their vision.  According to the imdb, The Challenge was actually directed by veteran television directed George McGowan, whose other credits includes episodes of shows like Fantasy Island, Starsky and Hutch, and Charlie’s Angels.  I am surprised that McGowan chose to take his name off of The Challenge because, for a television movie, it’s not bad.  The Vietnam analogy is laid on a little thick but the action is exciting and both McGavin and Mako give excellent performances as the two very different combatants.

The Challenge can be viewed on YouTube.  Keep an eye out for a very young Sam Elliott, in the role of America’s insurance policy.


Cleaning Out The DVR: Born Yesterday (dir by George Cukor)


After I watched Goodbye, Mr. Chips, I decided to watch one more film that I had recorded off of TCM.  The movie I chose was Born Yesterday.

This 1950 film was directed by George Cukor and stars three Academy Award winners.  The lead actor was William Holden, who would win best actor three years after the release of Born Yesterday.  The villain was played Broderick Crawford, just a year after playing his Oscar-winning role in All The King’s Men.  Finally, the true star of the film was Judy Holliday, recreating her Broadway role of “dumb intelligent blonde” Billie Dawn.  For playing Billie, Holliday would win the award for best actress of the year.

In Born Yesterday, Billie is the girlfriend of Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford).  The crude and not particularly intelligent Harry has made a fortune as a “junkman” and, though the film never comes out and explicitly says so, it is suggested that Harry may have ties to the Mafia.  Harry has come to Washington, convinced that he can buy his way into political power.  Harry’s lawyer (Howard St. John) suggests that Harry should marry Billie, specifically because a wife cannot be compelled to testify against her husband.

However, there’s a problem.  Billie is uneducated and lacks formal manners.  Of course, Harry is even worse but then again, Harry is a rich white guy and, therefore, he doesn’t have to be polite or know what he’s talking about  After Billie embarrasses him during a meeting with a congressman, Harry hires journalist Paul Verrall (William Holden) to teach Billie how to fit in with Washington society.  At first, Paul refuses but, ultimately, he takes the job because he needs the money.

As Paul teaches Billie, it quickly becomes apparent that Billie is not as dumb as everyone assumes.  In fact, she has an insatiable desire to learn.  When Paul takes her on a tour of Washington, Billie is excited to learn the story behind every monument and to take a look at every historical artifact.  (When Paul shows her the bill of rights, Billie immediately reads the 2nd Amendment and gets Paul to explain it to her.  As Paul explained that it meant that citizens had the right to bear arms, my sister walked through the room and said, “You got that right.”)  Judy Holliday perfectly captures Billie’s excitement as, for the first time in her life, she’s actually treated like someone with a brain.

Billie also starts to fall in love with Paul.  After reading one of Paul’s articles, an obviously impressed Billie tells him, “I think it’s the best thing I ever read.  I didn’t understand a word.”  At the same time, Paul starts to fall for Billie.

Meanwhile, Harry is not falling for anyone but himself.  He continues to bribe congressmen but now, Billie not only realizes what Harry is doing but also understands that it’s illegal and goes against everything that the authors of the Constitution envisioned.  After a rather nasty scene in which she is repeatedly slapped by Harry, Billie goes down to the Lincoln Memorial, hears the voice of old Abe himself, and is finally ready to stand up for herself, for Paul, and for the American way of life.

(“When you steal from the government, you steal from yourself, you dumb ox!” she yells at Harry.)

Born Yesterday was based on a stage play and, with the exception of the scenes where Paul and Billie explore D.C., the entire film takes place in Harry’s hotel suite.  The film never quite escapes its theatrical origins.  Broderick Crawford bellows his lines out to the last row and William Holden feels miscast.  (That same year, he gave a far more interesting performance in Sunset Boulevard.)

But ultimately, Born Yesterday is mostly designed to showcase Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn.  When the film first started, I have to admit that I had my doubts about Holliday’s performance.  Her character was so stereotypically ditzy and spoke in such a nasal whine of a voice that I found myself wishing that the film had been made with either Marilyn Monroe or even Jayne Mansfield in the Billie Dawn role.  But, as the film progresses, I started to better appreciate Holliday’s performance.  I started to notice the sadness and the insecurity lurking underneath the surface.  I discovered that there was unexpected nuance to both the character and the performance.  By the time she was running through the National Archives and asking Paul questions about George Washington, she had totally won me over.

Still, Holliday’s victory for best actress does seem a little strange.  After all, to win the Oscar, Holliday defeated All About Eve‘s Bette Davis and Anne Baxter and Sunset Boulevard‘s Gloria Swanson.  Holliday’s performance definitely deserved a nomination but it’s a bit more difficult to argue that it deserved the Oscar.  Of course, Davis and Baxter played two tough and sarcastic divas, neither one of whom depended on a man for their success.  Swanson, meanwhile, played an older woman who ends up murdering her much younger lover.  Billie, meanwhile, is never without a girlfriend and doesn’t murder anyone.  Perhaps it’s understandable that certain Academy voters would be more comfortable with Billie Dawn than they would with Norma Desmond or Margo Channing.

Born Yesterday was also nominated for best picture but it lost to All About Eve.

Embracing the Melodrama #10: All The King’s Men (dir by Robert Rossen)

All The King's Men

“The people are my study.” — Governor Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) in All The King’s Men (1949).

We close today’s embrace of melodrama by taking a look at one of the best political films ever made, the 1949 best picture winner All The King’s Men.

All the King’s Men tells the story of a demagogue named Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford, who deservedly won an Oscar for his powerful and intimidating performance here).  When we first meet Willie, he’s a poor farmer and political activist whose attempts to run for a minor office in an unnamed southern state are defeated by the state’s corrupt political machine.  Instead of being intimidated, Willie is instead inspired to go to law school and become a lawyer who fights for the people.  When an elementary school fire escape collapses and kills several children, Willie sues the construction company that built the school.

This also brings Willie to the attention of cynical political operative Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge, who also won a very deserved Oscar for her performance).  Sadie works for the state’s governor, who happens to be locked in a tight election campaign with a political reformer.  Sadie is dispatched to convince Willie to run for governor, with the idea being that Willie will take votes away from the reform candidate and therefore allow the governor to be reelected.

Everyone originally assumes that Willie is just a hick who will be easily manipulated.  And, at first, Willie proves to be an uninspiring campaigner.  It is only after he over hears his aide Jack Burden (John Ireland) talking to Sadie that Willie realizes that he’s being set up.  Willie responds by going to a country fair, dramatically ripping up his prepared speech, and then launching into a spell-binding speech in which he tells the people at the fair that, since they’re all hicks, they’ll only have power once they elect another hick to the governor’s office.  Newly energized and angry, Willie is nearly elected governor.

Four years later, Willie is back and he’s running for governor again.  He’s still giving loud populist speeches but, as Burden notes in his voice over narration, the difference is that Willie is now the establishment candidate.  He may be giving speeches promising hope and chance and attacking the rich but Willie will still take their money and watch out for their interests if that’s what he has to do to get elected.  (Sound like any Presidents that we might know?)

Once Willie is elected governor, he runs his state like a dictator, engaging in blackmail, demagoguery, and maybe even murder to get everything he wants.  He may still claim to be a hick but, as both Burden and Sadie realize, Willie has become exactly what he originally claimed to be against.  However, after Willie’s son (John Derek) kills a girl in a drunk driving accident and Burden discovers that the woman he loves has become Willie’s mistress, it starts to become apparent that Willie’s corruption has created a world that is spinning even out of Willie’s control.

All The King’s Men may be a political film but it feels more like a gangster film, with Willie Stark coming across less as a politician and more like a crime lord.  Director Robert Rossen directs in a style that owes a lot to film noir and the entire film is full of shadowy figures and secret plotting.  Though the film starts out on almost a comical note, with a lot of emphasis being put on Willie Stark’s simple ways, it eventually reveals itself to be a truly disturbing portrait of what happens when one man is overwhelmed by his lust of power.  Rossen is aided by a uniformly excellent cast.  While I already specifically mentioned Crawford and McCambridge, it would be very wrong to review All The King’s Men without mentioning an actor named Walter Burke.  Burke played Willie’s bodyguard.  He said, at most, maybe 3 sentences over the course of the entire film but Burke had such a memorable and intimidating presence that his unsmiling face is one of the defining images of the film.

The short, scary man smoking the cigarette?  That's Walter Burke.

The short, scary man smoking the cigarette? That’s Walter Burke.

Finally, not surprisingly, All the King’s Men remains just as relevant today as when it was first released.  We love our demagogues in America, especially when they pretend to be “just like us.”  (And if anyone doubts that, I suggest they spend a few minutes listening to all of the potential Presidential contenders bragging about how they’ve been dead broke, how they’re known as Average Joe, and how much they hate the very political system that they continue to perpetrate.)   We love to condemn our Willie Starks but, at the same time, we also love to keep electing them.

All The King's Men 2