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:
- The Flight That Disappeared
- The Humanity Bureau