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

 

That’s Blaxploitation! 12: COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (United Artists 1970)


cracked rear viewer


I’m not really sure if COTTON COMES TO HARLEM qualifies as a Blaxploitation film. Most genre experts point to Melvin Van Peebles’ SWEET SWEETBACK’S BADASSSSS SONG and/or Gordon Parks’s SHAFT , both released in 1971, as the films that kicked off the Blaxploitation Era. Yet this movie contains many of the Blaxploitation tropes to follow, and is based on the works of African-American writer Chester Himes.

Hardboiled author Chester Himes

Himes (1909-1984) began his writing career while doing a prison stretch for armed robbery. After his short stories started being published in Esquire, he was paroled in 1936, and soon met poet Langston Hughes, who helped him get established in the literary world. Reportedly, Himes worked for a time as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers in the 40’s, but was let go when a racist Jack Warner declared he “don’t want no n*ggers on this lot” (1). His first …

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A Movie A Day #303: The Evil That Men Do (1984, directed by J. Lee Thompson)


Clement Molloch (Joseph Maher) is a doctor who uses his medical training to torture journalists and dissidents in an unnamed South American country.  Holland (Charles Bronson) is a former  CIA assassin, who is content with being retired.  But when Molloch kills a journalist who was also an old friend of Holland’s, it all becomes about revenge.  No one’s more dangerous than Charles Bronson seeking revenge.  Working with the dead journalist’s widow (Theresa Saldana), Holland heads down to South America.  Since Molloch is always surrounded by bodyguards, it is not going to be easy to get him.  But who can stop Charles Bronson?

Bronson was 62 years old when he made The Evil The Men Do and he was still the toughest, coolest killer in the movies.  The Evil That Men Do is a rarity, an 80s Bronson film that was not produced by Cannon.  It still feels like a Cannon production, even if it is a little more interesting than some of the other films that Bronson was making at that time.  Dr. Molloch was clearly based on the notorious Nazi Klaus Barbie and Joseph Maher plays Molloch as being a dignified sadist.  Molloch also has a strange relationship with his equally cruel sister (Antoinette Bower).  That Molloch is so extremely evil makes the film’s final scenes all the more satisfying.

The Evil That Men Do is one of the best of Bronson’s later films.  Charles Bronson, man.  No one got revenge better than Bronson.

“DAMN YOU, KENNEDY!”: Assignment — Kill Castro (1980, directed by Chuck Workman)


7d9oDL3Y5kupCGgUsR6Jh5ZU1KfOne of my earliest memories of staying up late and watching cheesy movies on local television was the sight of Robert Vaughn standing on a beach and cursing, “Damn you, Kennedy!”  An echo effect kicked in, making the line: “Damn you, Kennedy Kennedy Kennedy Kennedy Kennedy!”

The name of the movie was Assignment — Kill Castro and sometimes it seemed like it came on every other night.  The movie started with a title crawl that was so lengthy and so set the tone for the entire film that I feel it is worth quoting in its entirety:

From 1961, the year of the Bag of Pigs to today, the Government of the United States has been embroiled in a series of events which have continually led our nation to crisis after crisis and to the brink of war.

ASSIGNMENT — KILL CASTRO, a true story is one of the most confusing and frustrating historical events that might have led to a world power showdown.  It happened yesterday!  It happened today!  It can happen again!

Names of persons and places have been changed to protect the individuals who were called upon to aid their country and in doing so placed their lives in jeopardy.

“I WILL GIVE ALL FOR THE LOVE OF MY COUNTRY … RIGHT OR WRONG! — G.W. Bell, Chief of Carribean (sic) Operations, Central Intelligence Agency”

This motion picture is dedicated to all people who desire to live in a free democratic society.

Robert Vaughn plays Hud, a former CIA agent who was involved in the original Bay of Pigs invasion.  When the mysterious Mr. Bell (Raymond St. Jacques) and a gangster named Rossellini (Michael V. Gazzo) agree to finance an operation to kill Fidel Castro, Hud recruits a Key West bar owner named Tony (Stuart Whitman) to take him to Cuba.  However, Mr. Bell and Rossellini are just using Hud to secretly smuggle heroin into Florida and, much like John F. Kennedy in 1961, they are planning on abandoning him on the beaches of Cuba.

The main problem with Assignment — Kill Castro is that we already know that Hud is not going to succeed in his mission because Fidel Castro is still alive and probably still bragging about how he sent Tony Montana to Miami.  The other problem is that the movie does not make any damn sense.  That title crawl was not kidding when it said the story was confusing and frustrating.  Everyone is so busy double-crossing everyone else that it is hard to keep track.  There has to be a simpler way to get heroin into Florida.  Surprisingly, this incoherent movie was written and directed by the legendary editor, Chuck Workman, the same Chuck Workman who puts together those montages for the Oscars.

Kill Castro does have a good cast, though none of them are at their best.  Along with Whitman, Vaughn, St. Jacques, and Gazzo, the cast includes Woody Strode, Albert Salmi, and Sybil Danning (whose last name is misspelled Daning in the end credits).  Fidel Castro plays himself and the film’s ending is provided by cannibal turtles.

Assignment — Kill Castro was just one of the many titles that this movie was released under.

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It was also known as Cuba Crossing,

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Key West Crossing, The Mercenaries, and my personal favorite, Sweet Dirty Tony.

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