J. Edgar Hoover was as much a publicist as he was a lawman over his career, making himself the face of the FBI as far as the media was concerned. He was credited as consultant on numerous films, TV and radio shows and even comic books, seen in newsreels and portrayed as a figure of paternal authority whenever seen or referred to in classic movies. So it’s kind of surprising that no biopic ever surfaced until after his death. You’d think he would have nurtured quite the big screen hagiography in his lifetime.
Instead, the first Hoover bio-pic hardly makes him out to be an American hero. And it wasn’t by Clint Eastwood, either. The Private Files Of J. Edgar Hoover (1977) was a labor of love project from exploitation legend Larry Cohen, an independent director (and writer and producer) if there ever was one, and it was the closest that he ever got to an all-star cast.
Oscar winner Broderick Crawford is Hoover, the once-dedicated agent who cleans up the bureau out of moral indignation over abuses and then builds it into his own private duchy of power and control, using information and blackmail to maintain his position and authority through every successive administration. Rip Torn is the young agent who becomes disillusioned by Hoover’s abuses and a guest cast of historical figures is incarnated by a great collection of character actors and class acts: Howard Da Silva as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Michael Parks as Robert Kennedy (who is actually far more convincing than “J. Edgar”‘s Jeffrey Donovan), Raymond St. Jacques as Martin Luther King, Andrew Duggan as Lyndon Johnson, Jack Cassidy as Damon Runyon and Lloyd Gough as Walter Winchell. José Ferrer, Celeste Holm, Ronee Blakley, John Marley, June Havoc, Lloyd Nolan and George Plimpton also costar.
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The Private Files Of J. Edgar Hoover (1977) is the closest that Larry Cohen, an independent director if there ever was one, ever got to an all-star cast. Oscar winner Broderick Crawford is Hoover, the once-dedicated agent who cleans up the bureau out of moral indignation over abuses and then builds it into his own private duchy of power and control, using information and blackmail to maintain his position and authority through every successive administration.
Rip Torn is the young agent who becomes disillusioned by Hoover’s abuses and a guest cast of historical figures include Howard Da Silva as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Michael Parks as Robert Kennedy, Raymond St. Jacques as Martin Luther King, Andrew Duggan as Lyndon Johnson, Jack Cassidy as Damon Runyon and Lloyd Gough as Walter Winchell (José Ferrer, Celeste Holm, Ronee Blakley, John Marley, June Havoc, Lloyd Nolan and George Plimpton also costar). Dan Dailey his trusted “friend” Clyde Tolson, the man whispered to be his gay lover, but Cohen doesn’t give in to rumor of Hoover’s cross-dressing and closeted identity. He posits Hoover as a highly sexually repressed man (possible impotent), anxious when it comes to sexual contact with women, aroused only when listening to secret recordings made of the sexual activities of other people (including his own agents). There are plenty of contradictions in this Hoover, all of them designed to create Cohen’s portrait of a man who isn’t really aware of his contradictions.
Less than half of Big House, U.S.A. actually takes place in the Big House. It begins and ends in the dramatic landscape of Royal Gorge Park, Colorado. Ralph Meeker quite handily stashes a runaway boy from the local summer camp in an abandoned ranger’s station and hides the ransom money (and the boy, who doesn’t survive the ordeal) before he’s captured and sent up the river. Once inside, it plays like a poor man’s Brute Force, with Broderick Crawford plotting an escape with his B-movie cast of cellmates (William Talman, Lon Chaney Jr. and Charles Bronson) and Meeker, shunned by all as a childkiller, is dragged along. They want to recover the hidden loot.
Scripted by John C. Higgins (who penned Raw Deal, T-Men and Border Incident for Anthony Mann) and directed by Howard W. Koch, it’s an inconsistent film, with striking imagery, creative twists (scuba gear) and ruthless turns (death by steam tunnel) next to plodding direction and tired first-person narration from Reed Hadley, who plays the colorless but dignified FBI agent on the case. There are some marvelously jagged edges to the tale but Koch fails to create any tension or drama from the material. He has the good luck of finding a terrific landscape wherever he puts his camera in the Royal Gorge scenes, but fails to hide the fact that his underwater scenes take place in the shallows of a studio tank. The visual quality is grainier and coarser than 99 River Street but is perfectly acceptable and quite watchable.
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New York Confidential (VCI) is neither the first nor the best of the “ripped from the headlines” crime expose dramas that followed the Senate hearings into organized crime chaired by Estes Kefauver, but it is a classic mix of Hollywood docudrama and tabloid exploitation. Made in 1955 and inspired by (if not quite based on) the book by Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer, this precursor to the mafia movies stars Broderick Crawford as New York crime boss Charlie Lupo, a real “family man” who swaps family snapshots while plotting a hit, and Richard Conte as the loyal pro Nick Magellan, a cool, smart and savvy gunman who is brought in from Chicago for a killing and stays on as Lupo’s trusted right hand. Crawford won his Oscar for All the King’s Men but Lupo is less Willie Stark than crime boss turned big businessman, trying to keep of a front of respectability with legitimate deals. But while he wears the front of a citizen, he’s an uncomfortable fit in the halls of power (he reverts back to thug while conferencing with his bought-and-paid-for Senators) or society.
J. Edgar Hoover had denied the existence of the mob for decades until the Kefauver hearings finally brought too much attention. This film quietly but clearly establishes the chain of command in the opening scene as Lupo takes his orders in a phone call from Italy, and acknowledges the open secret of the mob (called “The Syndicate” here) through his daughter Kathy (a stunning young Anne Bancroft), who moves through society circles but treated like a pariah because everyone knows the Daddy is a gangster. “You’re still a hoodlum,” she spits at him after another boyfriend has been scared off, this time by Nick. “You’ll never be anything else.” Contempt drips from her every utterance but she can’t outrun the family name or the criminal stain and she finally turns that contempt on herself: the poor little crime princess who chokes on her self-hatred. Nick’s adoring courtship only makes it worse, especially when his desire conflicts with his loyalty to Lupo. Kathy can’t even debase herself properly.
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