Weekend Viewing: ‘The Private Files Of J. Edgar Hoover’

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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Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings: Rebel With a Cause

Jeffrey Hunter: Intense serenity

King of Kings (MGM)

Nicholas Ray’s 1961 epic drama of the story of Christ (and ostensible remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent classic) has less spectacle than the other epics of its era but it remains one of the most interesting and perceptive Biblical epics of its era. Narration (by Orson Welles) takes us back to the Roman invasion of the Holy Land and the enslavement of the Jews, setting the historical and social backdrop against which the familiar stories—the Nativity, the baptism, the apostles, the betrayal, the crucifixion and resurrection—play out, with blue-eyed Jeffrey Hunter as the calmly intense Jesus preaching peace with the passion of in his eyes and a gentleness in his carriage. Robert Ryan is a magnificent John the Baptist, a rough-hewn peasant touched by divine inspiration and following his faith to the end, and Rip Torn makes Judas a fiercely dedicated revolutionary fighting to free his people from Roman bondage at the side of Barabbas (Harry Guardino). In Jesus, he sees the man who will lead them, but he fails to hear his message of peace.

King of Kings is arguably the most revolutionary of any screen story of Christ (as least until The Last Temptation of Christ), putting Christ’s message of peaceful resistance next to the armed rebellion led by Barabbas and Judas, and offering Judas as a misguided apostle who believes his betrayal is part of Christ’s plan. He’s right, of course, but for the wrong reasons—he foresees an Old Testament showdown with Christ as a holy Samson or a modern Moses tearing down the walls as he faces down the enemy—which makes him more of a tragic figure than a villain. There are plenty of weaknesses in the film, from some awkward performances and risible dialogue to clumsy scenes (some of which can be attributed to interference). But whereas detractors dismissed the films as “I Was a Teenage Jesus,” it’s more accurate to describe it as “Rebel With a Cause.” The Blu-ray debut of this Samuel Bronston production, shot in Spain on 70mm, looks superb and includes the overture, entr’acte and exit music of the original roadshow presentation. The supplements are threadbare, consisting of a vintage featurette, newsreels of the premier and the trailer.

The Private Files Of J. Edgar Hoover

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.

Hey now! It’s The Complete Larry Sanders

The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory)

HBO’s first original series to become a buzz show was not The Sopranos. The late-night show-biz satire The Larry Sanders Show, a scathingly funny sitcom on the channel’s late-night schedule, received fair ratings, great reviews and a rabid following in Hollywood, where it became the industry’s cult show during its six year run, from 1992 to 1998. For years it was the sole reason I had HBO and with the release of this set, I was able to retire almost a dozen rapidly-fading VHS tapes on which I archived the (nearly) complete run of the show.

One big dysfunctional, backbiting family

Shandling had previously deconstructed America’s other favorite TV genre with his “stand-up sitcom” It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, a much gentler program that spoofed sitcom conventions as acknowledged the studio audience, the TV cameras and the space between the sets as the shows played out. (See my review of the  series here and my interview with Garry Shandling here.) The self-reflexive quality of The Larry Sanders Show was of a different nature, bouncing between the drama behind the scenes (shot on film) and the “show” itself (shot on video in traditional TV talk show style), but it wasn’t about acknowledging the conventions so much as deconstructing the business. Shandling plays talk host Larry Sanders, the reflexively glib and eternally insecure late-night veteran on a fictional show in the exaggerated(?) world of the cutthroat Los Angeles entertainment industry. It’s all about insecurities, egos, vanity, and other show-biz ailments and Shandling (who writes or co-writes practically every episode) is ruthless with his characters’ ambitions and fragile self-images. That caustic comedy attracted an astounding array of guest stars, all happy to send up themselves and their image in increasingly clever appearances.

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