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

 

The Fabulous Forties #49: Tulsa (dir by Stuart Heisler)


Tulsa_DVD_Cover

The 49th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was the 1949 “epic” Tulsa!

I put epic in quotation marks because Tulsa is only 90 minutes long and I personally don’t think you can really have an epic unless you also have epic length.  Giant is an epic, whereas Tulsa is an “epic.”  That said, Tulsa does have a goal worthy of an epic.  Tulsa is about oil and the men and women who sacrifice so much to get that oil out of the ground.  Some of them lose their lives, some of them lose their happiness, and some of them make a lot of money.  I know that makes this film sound a lot like There Will Be Blood but it’s really not.  There Will Be Blood is an epic.  Tulsa is an “epic.”

I have to admit that I was intrigued by this film, just because my family lived in Tulsa for a handful of months, way back when I was 9 years old.  That said, I did groan a little bit when the film opened with a folksy guy named Pinky Jimpson (Chill Wills) standing in front of a white fence and staring straight at the camera.  “Howdy, cousins,” Pinky says, before launching into a monologue about how Oklahoma is the greatest place on Earth.  As a Texan, I was legally required to roll my eyes at Pinky’s claims but, to be honest, Oklahoma’s a pretty nice place.  It’s certainly better than Vermont.

(Take that, Vermont!)

Anyway, once the story gets started, we discover that it’s about Cherokee Lansing (Susan Hayward).  After Cherokee’s rancher father is killed when an oil derrick falls over on him, she decides to get her revenge by entering the oil business herself.  At first, everyone is doubtful that a woman — especially a woman whose only apparent friend is a Native American named Jim Redbird (Pedro Armendariz) — can succeed in a man’s world.  But she proves them wrong by befriending eccentric oilman John Brady (Ed Begley).  After Johnny is killed in a bar fight (because Tulsa is a dangerous place), he leaves all of his land and drilling rights to Cherokee.  He also leaves behind a far more sober-minded son, Brad (Robert Preston), who goes into business with Cherokee.

Soon, Cherokee and Jim Redbird are rich and powerful.  But, as often happens, they are in danger of losing sight of why they wanted to become rich and powerful in the first place.  Jim, in particular, turns out to be a big ol’ sellout.  Brad is disgusted with all of them but then, fortunately, there’s a big oil fire which leads to a lot of stuff blowing up and everyone learning an important lesson…

Or, at the very least, Pinky assures us that they all learned a lesson.  He also talks about how everything in the world now runs on oil.  He mentions that you can get oil from other parts of the world but the best oil comes from Tulsa.

(And again, as a Texan, I am contractually obligated to roll my eyes while noting that people from Oklahoma are some of the nicest folks that you’ll ever meet…)

Anyway, as a film, Tulsa never quite works.  90 minutes isn’t enough time to tell the story that it’s trying to tell and some of the acting is rather inconsistent.  However, the fire at the end is still impressive (Tulsa’s special effects received an Oscar nomination.) and I enjoyed watching Susan Hayward go totally over-the-top in role of Cherokee.  Compared to her subtle and kind of depressing performance in Smash-Up, Hayward actually appears to be having fun in Tulsa and good for her!

Tulsa was the 2nd to last film in the Fabulous Forties box set.  In my next review, I will conclude this series by taking a look at Lady of Burlesque!

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #30: The Sweet Ride (dir by Harvey Hart)


The_Sweet_Ride_FilmPosterThe 1968 film The Sweet Ride takes the audience on a ride through Malibu and reminds us all that, in many ways, the 1960s sucked.

The Sweet Ride opens with actress Vicki Cartwright (Jacqueline Bisset) losing her top while swimming in the ocean.  While Vicki panics and tries to figure out how to get back to the beach without anyone seeing her breasts, she’s spotted by a surfer named Denny McGuire (Michael Sarrazin).  Denny hands her a towel and then leads her back to the beach house that he shares with aging tennis player Collie (Anthony Franciosa) and stoned musician Choo-Choo (Bob Denver).

The rest of the film is a 90 minute tour of California beach life in the late 60s.  Despite Collie’s cynical warning against falling in love, Denny does just that, despite the fact that Vicki refuses to tell him anything about her past or even where she lives.  Meanwhile, Collie spends his time hustling on the tennis court and the married Choo-Choo pretends to be gay in an attempt to get out of being drafted.  (Choo-Choo probably could have gotten out of the draft by pointing out that he appears to be 40 years old but the filmmakers decided to have him walk around with a poodle and speak in falsetto.  Just in case you had any doubt that this film was made in 1968…)  It’s a mix of comedy, romance, and drama and it’s features footage of some real bands performing in actual Malibu nightclubs and that’s a good thing for all of us history nerds.

And, since The Sweet Ride was made in 1968, the whole film gets progressively darker as it reaches its conclusion.  Choo-Choo does get drafted and it’s hard to believe he’ll survive a day in Viet Nam.  Collie’s perfect life is revealed to be an empty facade.  Denny realizes that his friends are all immature losers.  And Vicki ends up getting assaulted by a high-power studio executive (Warren Stevens).  It all leads to more violence, disillusionment, and general ennui.

For some reason, The Sweet Ride shows up on FXM fairly regularly.  It’s a strange film because it doesn’t really work and yet it’s also compulsively watchable.  It tries to be about everything and, as a result, it often feels like it’s about absolutely nothing.  And yet, somehow, it remains compelling…

Why is the film compelling despite itself?  It’s not because of the main characters, that’s for sure.  The boys in the beach house are probably some of the least likable film protagonists in cinematic history.  Anthony Franciosa gave some great performances in his career (check him out in A Face in the Crowd and Tenebrae) but Collie is such a smug jerk that you find yourself hoping that someone will just punch him in the face.  Meanwhile, Denny tends to come across like a weak-willed and obsessive stalker and Choo-Choo — well, Choo-Choo often seems to be a character in a totally different movie.  As for Vicki, her character pretty much exclusively exists to be victimized.

Ultimately, I think The Sweet Ride is watchable because it is such an imperfect time capsule.  If I wanted to know what it was like to be alive in the 60s, The Sweet Ride is one of the films that I would watch.  It’s not the best film ever made but it is a chance to look into the past.

(Incidentally, The Sweet Ride was directed by Harvey Hart, who also directed the underrated Shoot.)

 

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #19: Sunset Boulevard (dir by Billy Wilder)


Sunset Boulevard

“All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up!”

— Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

First released in 1950 and nominated for Best Picture, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is one of the greatest and most influential films of all time.  It’s also something of a difficult film to review because, in order for one to truly understand its greatness, it needs to be seen.  A description simply will not do.  You have to experience, first hand, the performances of Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Eric Von Stroheim.  You have to see, with your own eyes, the way that Billy Wilder perfectly balances drama, satire, and horror.  I can tell you about how cinematographer John F. Seitz perfectly contrasts the empty glossiness of Hollywood with the dark shadows that fill the ruined mansion of Norma Desmond but, again, it’s something that you owe it to yourself to see.  You need to hear the perfectly quotable dialogue with your own ears.  You need to experience Sunset Boulevard for yourself.

And, while you’re watching it, think about how easily one bad decision could have screwed up the entire film.  Sunset Boulevard is famous for being narrated by a dead man, a screenwriter named Joe (William Holden).  When we first see Joe, he’s floating in a pool.  Originally, however, the film was to open with the dead Joe sitting up in the morgue and telling us his story.  Reportedly, preview audiences laughed at the scene and it was cut out of the film.  And Wilder made the right decision to remove that scene.  Sunset Boulevard may be famous for being a strange film but, when you actually watch it, you realize just how controlled and disciplined Wilder’s direction actually is.  Sunset Boulevard may be weird but it’s never less than plausible.

Joe Gillis is a former newspaper reporter-turned-screenwriter.  He may have started out as an idealist but, as the film begins, he’s now just another Hollywood opportunist.  While trying to hide from a man looking to repossess his car, Joe stumbles upon a dilapidated old mansion.  The owner of the mansion is none other than Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent film star who has sent been forgotten but who still dreams of making a comeback.  (When Joe tells her that she used to be big, Norma famously responds that she’s still big and it’s the pictures that have gotten small.)  Norma has written a script and the opportunistic Joe convinces her to hire him as a script doctor.

Joe moves into the mansion and discovers a world that has never moved past the 1920s.  Norma’s butler and former director, Max (played by Gloria Swanson’s former director Erich Von Stroheim) writes letters that he claims were sent by Norma’s fans.  Norma spends her time watching her old movies.  Occasionally, other forgotten silent screen stars (including Buster Keaton) drop by to play cards.

Encouraged by Joe’s vapid flattery and a mysterious phone call from a Paramount exec, Norma has Max drive her down to the studio.  Greeted by the older employees and ignored by the younger, Norma visits with director Cecil B. DeMille (who plays himself).  In a rather sweet scene, she and DeMille remember their shared past.  DeMille obviously understands that she’s unstable but he treats her with real respect, in contrast to the manipulative Joe.

As for Joe, he’s fallen for a script reader named Betty (Nancy Olson) and wants to escape from being dependent on Norma.  However, Norma has invested too much in her “comeback” to just allow Joe to leave…

Sunset Boulevard is a wonderful mix of film noir and Hollywood satire.  And, though the film may be narrated by Joe and told from his point of view, it’s firmly on Norma’s side.  As easy as it is to be dismissive of Norma’s delusions, she’s right in the end.  It is the pictures that have gotten small and, as she proves towards the end of the film, she is still as capable of making a grand entrance as she ever was.

Joe may have been too stupid to realize it but Norma Desmond never stopped being a star.