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

 

Film Review: Susan Slade (dir by Delmer Daves)


Shortly after this 1961 film begins, 17 year-old Susan Slade (Connie Stevens) announces, “We’ve been sinful!”

She’s talking to her first lover, Conn White (Grant Williams).  You would think that anyone — even someone as unbelievably naive and innocent as Susan Slade — would know better than to ever trust someone named Conn White but no.  From the minute that Conn and Susan met on an ocean liner heading from South America to California, it was love at first sight.  In fact, Susan was so sure of her love that she spent the night in Conn’s cabin, fully knowing that it would mean surrendering her status as an Eisenhower era good girl.

Conn laughs off her concerns about sin.  He also tells her that it makes perfect sense for her not to tell her parents (played by Dorothy McGuire and Lloyd Nolan).  “When we’re married,” he asks, “are you going to tell your mother every time that we make love?”

Wow, Conn still wants to get married even though he’s already had sex with her!?  And he’s also extremely wealthy and stands to inherit control of a multinational corporation!  He sounds like the perfect guy!  Way to go, Susan!

Unfortunately, it turns out that Conn does have one flaw.  He really, really likes to go mountain climbing.  In fact, he’s planning on scaling fearsome old Mt. McKinley.  While Susan and her family settle into life in Monterey, California, Conn heads up to Alaska.  He promises Susan that he’ll keep in touch but, when she doesn’t hear from him, she fears the worse.  Has he abandoned her?  Was he lying when he said he wanted to get married?  Then one day, she gets a call from Conn’s father, informing her that Conn fell off the mountain and died.  Susan’s almost father-in-law tells her that Conn’s body cannot be retrieved from the mountain.  Though it’s neither confirmed nor denied by the film, I decided that this was because Conn faked his own death to get out of having to spend any more time listening to Susan talk about sin.

Anyway, Susan’s single again but, fortunately, she does not lack for suitors.  For instance, there’s the spoiled Wells Corbett (Bert Convy), who is kind of shallow and arrogant but who has a lot of money.  And then there’s Hoyt Brecker (played, in reliably vacuous style, by Troy Donahue), who is poor but honest and who is also an aspiring writer.  “Someday,” Susan declares,”they’ll say that Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, and Hoyt Brecker wrote here!”  Who will Susan chose?  The sensitive artist who loves her unconditionally or the arrogant rich boy who smirks his way through the whole film?

Complicating matters is the fact that Susan is …. pregnant!  That’s right, this is another one of those movies from the early 60s where having sex outside of marriage always leads to an unplanned pregnancy.  And, because this movie is from 1961, the only solution is for the Slades to move down to Guatemala for two years, just so they can fool the people on Monterey into believing that the baby is actually McGuire’s and that Susan Slade is not an unwed mother but is instead an overprotective older sister.  Will either of Susan’s two suitors be waiting for her when she and her family return to California?

Now, please don’t get me wrong.  I do understand that there’s a big difference between 1961 and 2019 and that there used to be a lot more scandal attached to sex outside of marriage and unwed pregnancy.  In fact, I guess that difference is really the only thing that makes Susan Slade interesting to a modern viewer.  As soon as we see that this film was directed by Delmer Daves (the poor man’s Douglas Sirk) and that it stars Troy Donahue, we know who poor Susan is going to end up with so it’s not like there’s any real surprises lurking in the film’s plot.  And none of the actors, though Connie Stevens sometimes to be trying, seems to be that invested in the film’s story.  Instead, Susan Slade is mostly useful of a time capsule of the time in which it was made, a time when sex outside of marriage was unironically “sinful” and the only possible punishment was either pregnancy, death, or both.  Indeed, Susan Slade is less concerned about the hypocrisy of a society that would force Susan to lie about her new “brother” and more about whether bland lunkhead Troy Donaue will still be willing to marry Susan even if she’s no longer eligible to wear white at their wedding.  The film seems to be asking, “After being sinful, can Susan Slade become a good girl again?”  As a movie, it’s fairly turgid but as a cultural artifact of a time in which everyone was obsessed with sex but no one was willing to talk about it, Susan Slade is occasionally fascinating.

Poor Susan Slade!  If only she had gotten pregnant in a 1971 film instead of one made in 1961, her story could have been so different.  But no, she was sinful in the early 60s and that means she’ll be have to settle for Troy Donahue.

 

The Great American Pastime: IT HAPPENED IN FLATBUSH (20th Century-Fox 1942)


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Major League Baseball’s Opening Day has finally arrived! It’s a tradition as American as Apple Pie, and so is IT HAPPENED IN FLATBUSH, a baseball movie about a lousy team in Brooklyn whose new manager takes them to the top of the heap. The team’s not explicitly called the Dodgers and the manager’s not named Leo Durocher, but their improbable 1941 pennant winning season is exactly what inspired this charmingly nostalgic little movie.

When Brooklyn’s manager quits the team, dowager team owner Mrs. McAvoy seeks out ex-player Frank Maguire, who seven years earlier was run out of town when an unfortunate error cost the team the pennant. She finds him running a club out in the sticks, and convinces him to come back to the Big Leagues. He does, bringing along his faithful bat boy/sidekick ‘Squint’, and just before the season’s about to begin, Mrs. McAvoy abruptly dies. Her family…

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Cleaning Out the DVR Pt. 22: Winter Under the Stars


cracked rear viewer

I haven’t done one of these posts in a while, and since my DVR is heading towards max capacity, I’m way overdue! Everyone out there in classic film fan land knows about TCM’s annual “Summer Under the Stars”, right? Well, consider this my Winter version, containing a half-dozen capsule reviews of some Hollywood star-filled films of the past!

PLAYMATES (RKO 1941; D: David Butler ) – That great thespian John Barrymore’s press agent (Patsy Kelly) schemes with swing band leader Kay Kyser’s press agent (Peter Lind Hayes) to team the two in a Shakespearean  festival! Most critics bemoan the fact that this was Barrymore’s final film, satirizing himself and hamming it up mercilessly, but The Great Profile, though bloated from years of alcohol abuse and hard living, seems to be enjoying himself in this fairly funny but minor screwball comedy with music. Lupe Velez livens things up as Barrymore’s spitfire…

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Cleaning Out the DVR: Lady In The Lake (dir by Robert Montgomery)


(Lisa is once again in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  She recorded the 1947 film noir Lady In The Lake off of TCM on June 17th!)

You are Raymond Chandler’s world-famous private detective, Phillip Marlowe!

Well, no.  Actually, you aren’t.  Lady in the Lake is best-known for being one of the first (if not the first) film to be shot from the viewpoint of the main character but actually, the film goes out of its way to remind you that you’re seeing the story through Marlowe’s eyes but you’re not Marlowe yourself.  There are three scenes in which Marlowe (played by Robert Montgomery, who also directed the film) is seen sitting behind a desk and directly addressing the audience.  He shows up to fill in a few plot details and to assure the audience that, while the film they’re watching may be experimental, it’s not too experimental.  For his part, Montgomery looks and sounds absolutely miserable whenever he has to speak directly to the audience.  One gets the feeling that these scenes were forced on him by nervous studio execs, who were probably worried that the film would be too weird for mainstream audiences.

However, the rest of the film is seen totally through Marlowe’s eyes.  When Marlowe gets punched, we see the fist flying at him.  When Marlowe smokes a cigarette, we see the smoke float away from him.  When Marlowe leers at every single woman that he meets, the camera leers as well.  When Marlowe looks at himself in a mirror, we see his reflection.  When Marlowe passes out after a beating or a car accident, the image grows blurry before fading to black.  There’s even a rather clever scene when Marlowe leans in for a kiss, just to suddenly change his mind and pull back.

Today, of course, the film’s technique doesn’t seem quite as revolutionary.  We’re used to point of view shots and moving cameras.  Last year, Hardcore Henry told its entire stupid story through a point of view shot and the shaky cam effect actually made me physically ill.  In Lady in the Lake, there is no shaky, hand-held camera work and I was happy about that.  Marlowe may turn his head left and right and he may walk forward but he apparently has nerves of steel because the image stays steady and only shakes when Marlowe’s getting beat up.

As for the film’s plot, it opens with Marlowe explaining that, since he’s not making enough money as a P.I., he’s decided to try his hand at writing for a pulp magazine.  While his stories are not accepted, publishing executive Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter) does hire him to track down the missing wife of her boss, Derace Kingbury (Leon Ames).  As Marlowe quickly figures out, nobody’s motives are exactly pure.  Adrienne wants to marry her boss and get her hands on his money.  The wife’s lover (Richard Simmons) claims that he hasn’t seen her in weeks but still lets slip that she may no longer be alive.  The police (represented by Lloyd Nolan and Tom Tully) are corrupt, rather rude, and may know more than they are letting on.  Even a seemingly innocent landlady (Jayne Meadows) might have a secret or two.

And, of course, there’s the dead woman who is discovered in a nearby lake.  Her identity holds the key to many mysteries…

It’s an intriguing puzzle and it actually helps to see everything through Marlowe’s eyes.  If nothing else, it cuts down on the red herrings.  If Marlowe stops to stare at something, you know exactly what he’s staring at and you can be sure that it will prove to be important at some point in the story.

By the way, did I mention that Lady In The Lake is not just an experimental film noir but a Christmas movie?  Seriously, it opens with holiday music playing in the background and the opening credits are printed on cheery Christmas cards.  It’s only after the credits are over that we see that there’s a gun underneath the cards.  As a director, Montgomery does a great job juxtaposing the cheeriness of Christmas with the sordidness of the people who Marlowe has to associate with on a daily basis.  He may be dealing with a bunch of murderers and greedy con artists but almost everyone has a Christmas tree in their apartment.

In fact, it’s so easy to get so wrapped up in the film’s technique that the viewer runs the risk of not noticing just how dark and cynical Lady in The Lake truly is.  Everyone that Marlowe meets is sleazy.  Marlowe, himself, does not come across as being particularly likable.  Every room that Marlowe enters is underlit.  Interestingly, with the exception of the opening credits and a driving montage, there’s not much music to be heard in the film, a reminder that we’re only hearing what Marlowe hears.  And, in Marlowe’s world, there’s no music playing in the background to provide relief from the tension.  There’s just a mix of lies and threats.

Lady in the Lake is an intriguing film and it shows up on TCM fairly frequently.  Keep an eye out for it.

A Movie A Day #223: The Texas Rangers (1936, directed by King Vidor)


Sam (Lloyd Nolan), Jim (Fred MacMurray), and Wahoo (Jack Oakie) are three outlaws in the old west.  Wahoo works as a stagecoach driver and always lets Sam and Jim know which coaches will be worth holding up.  It’s a pretty good scam until the authorities get wise to their scheme and set out after the three of them.  Sam abandons his two partners while Jim and Wahoo eventually end up in Texas.  At first, Jim and Wahoo are planning to keep on robbing stagecoaches but then they realize that they can make even more money as Texas Rangers.

At first, Jim and Wahoo are just planning on sticking around long enough to make some cash and then split.  However, both of them discover that they prefer to be on the right side of the law.  After they save a boy named David from Indians, Jim and Wahoo decide to stay in Texas and protect its settlers.

The only problem is that their old friend Sam has returned and his still on the wrong side of the law.

Made to commemorate the Texas centenary (though it was filmed in New Mexico), The Texas Rangers is a good example of what’s known as an oater, a low-budget but entertaining portrayal of life on the frontier.   King Vidor does a good job with the action scenes and Fred MacMuarry and Jack Oakie are a likable onscreen team.  The best performance comes from Lloyd Nolan, as the ruthless and calculating Sam.  Sam can be funny and even likable but when he’s bad, he’s really bad.

Jack Oakie was better known as a comedian and The Texas Rangers provides him with a rare dramatic role.  Four years after appearing in The Texas Rangers, Oakie would appear in his most famous role, playing a parody of Benito Mussolini in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

A Movie A Day #158: The Girl Hunters (1963, directed by Roy Rowland)


Private detective Mike Hammer (Mickey Spillane) has spent the last seven years in the gutter.  Ever since his secretary, Velda, disappeared, Hammer has stopped working cases and, instead, spends all of his time drinking and passing out in alleys.  That is where he is found by his old friend, Captain Pat Chambers (Scott Peters).  Pat tells Mike that there has been a shooting.  A man named Richie is dying in the hospital and want to speak to him.  According to Richie, he was shot by the Dragon, the same communist super villain that Velda is currently hiding from.  That sobers Hammer up.  In fact, Mike Hammer is so tough that it only takes him a few minutes to shake off seven years of alcoholism.  Mike discovers that Richie’s murder is also connected to the murder of a senator.  Mike’s investigation leads him to both the senator’s bikini-clad wife (Shirley Eaton) and a communist conspiracy to take over the world.  What is strange is that it never leads him to Velda.  Maybe he would have found her if The Girl Hunters had gotten a sequel.

Many films were based on Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels but The Girl Hunters is unique because it stars Mickey Spillane as Hammer.  Spillane was not much of an actor but he was a genuine tough guy who, even after he became a successful writer, still looked like he had gone a few rounds with the world so he was not necessarily miscast in the role of Hammer.  The main problem with The Girl Hunters is that the mystery is not that interesting.  Mike Hammer does not really investigate anything.  He just goes from fight to fight.  At the end of the movie, he does come up with a clever trick to catch the killer but since there is only one suspect, the killer’s identity is not a surprise.s   The Girl Hunter is worth seeing for Shirley Eaton in a bikini and the novelty of Mickey Spillane playing his most famous creation but Kiss Me Deadly is still the best Mike Hammer film.

The French poster leaves no doubt about The Girl Hunters’ main selling point.

Embracing The Melodrama #13: Peyton Place (dir by Mark Robson)


Poster - Peyton Place_04

“Just remember: men can see much better than they can think. Believe me, a low-cut neckline does more for a girl’s future than the entire Britannica encyclopedia.” — Betty (Terry Moore), speaking the truth in Peyton Place (1957)

Sex!  Sin!  Secrets!  Scandal!  It’s just another day in the life of Peyton Place, the most sordid little town this side of Kings Row!  It’s also the setting of the 1957 best picture nominee, Peyton Place.

Peyton Place is a seemingly idyllic little village in New England.  The town is divided by railroad tracks and how your fellow townspeople views you literally depends on which side of the tracks you live on.  As the film itself shows us, the right side of tracks features pretty houses and primly dressed starlets.  The wrong side of the tracks features shacks and a bunch of people who look like the ancestors of the cast of Winter’s Bone.  The difference in appearance is not particularly subtle (but then again, the same thing could be said for the entire film) but, regardless of which side of the tracks live on, chances are that you’re keeping a few secrets from the rest of the town.

On the right side of the tracks, you can find Constance McKenzie (played by Lana Turner, who is just about as convincing as a New England matron as you would expect a glamorous Hollywood star to be), a dress shop owner who is so prim and proper that she literally flies into a rage when she comes across her daughter kissing a boy.  Could it be the Constance’s repression is the result of her once having been a rich man’s mistress?  And will the new high school principal, the progressive and rather dull Mr. Rossi (Lee Phillips), still love her despite her sordid past?

Constance’s daughter is Allison (Diane Varsi) and poor Allison just can not understand why her mother is so overprotective.  Will Allison ever find true love with the painfully shy Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn) or will she be forced to settle for someone like the rich and irresponsible Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe)?

Rodney, for his part, is in love with Betty (Terry Moore), a girl from the wrong sides of the tracks.  Rodney’s father (Leon Ames) is the richest man in town and makes it clear that he will not allow his son to marry someone with a “reputation.”  Will Rodney get a chance to redeem himself by going off to fight in World War II?

And what will happen when Rodney and Betty go skinny dipping and are spotted by a local town gossip who promptly mistakes them for Norman and Allison?  Reputations are at stake here!

Meanwhile, over on the bad side of the tracks, Lucas Cross (Arthur Kennedy) sits in his shack and drinks and thinks about how the world has failed him.  His long-suffering wife (Betty Field) works as housekeeper for the McKenzie family.  Meanwhile, his abused daughter Selena (Hope Lange, giving the film’s best performance) is Allison’s best friend.  When Lucas’s attempt to rape Selena leads to a violent death, the sins and hypocrisy of Peyton Place are revealed to everyone.

Peyton Place is a big, long  movie, full of overdramatic characters, overheated dialogue, and over-the-top plotting and, for that reason, I absolutely love it!  Apparently, the film was quite controversial in its day and the scenes where Arthur Kennedy attacks Hope Lange still have the power to disturb.  However, the main reason why I enjoy Petyon Place is because anything that could happen in Peyton Place does happen in Peyton Place.

Seriously, how can you not love a film this sordid and melodramatic?