Thursday Editor’s Pick: The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977)

by on October 31, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thurs Nov 3 at 7:00* at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]
*Director Larry Cohen in person


Exploitation auteur Larry Cohen’s unjustly forgotten labor-of-love biopic gets resurrected again this year, in honor of the release of Clint Eastwood’s Leo-for-the-Oscar! vehicle.


From Cohen’s 17-page memo on the the inadequacies and inaccuracies of Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay (which the production sent to him for comment – and never responded). The whole thing is worth a scan:

As my movie shows, they were all bad guys — the presidents, the politicians and the FBI director. There were no heroes — only ambitious men doing what was expedient. Hoover sacrificed the lives and reputations of many decent people in the interest of what he considered “the good of the nation.” It’s disgraceful and tragic — and it’s got the makings of a great movie. I have hopes that perhaps a new version of the script has been fashioned since the draft I received. But certainly my disappointment in what could have been the definitive J. Edgar Hoover movie must be expressed. And I thank you for your time and attention in reading this — and hope that you’ll pass it on to your friends and fellow movie fans.


Check out Andy McCarthy’s Alt Screen interview with the director, and don’t miss this opportunity to see Cohen in person — as the trancript will attest, Cohen is an impassioned industry veteran with a lot to say.


Meanwhile, Geoffrey O’Brien in Film Comment (July/Aug 2011):

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is many movies, some of them lasting only a few seconds. Was ever a biopic this frantically compressed? More to the point, was there ever a biopic that made more exuberant use of such compression, jamming enough burning questions, disputed issues, and just plain slanderous rumors into 112 minutes to generate a kind of tabloid satori? It is a definitive post- Watergate exploitation epic, staged as a Brechtian puppet show and supplemented with explanatory voiceovers and intercut documentary footage. Starting with a montage of empty offices and in short order bringing Nixon himself on screen to deliver a televised tribute, the film seems poised to be the anticipated demolition job on Hoover. It veers, however, in less predictable directions, finding ambiguities and contradictions in the FBI chief while reveling in a drive-by exposé of everything else in a half-century of American politics: the Palmer raids, the wartime internment of Japanese Americans, the McCarthy era, the hypocrisies and compromises of the Kennedy White House, right down to the crimes of the Nixon gang, with Hoover often cast in a restraining or at least skeptical role.


The first time I saw The Private Piles of J. Edgar Hoover it seemed like a demented comic book, telling a different story on each hilariously bizarre page. But with time it looks more like a profound distillation of the craziness of American political culture and public mythology, made when just for a moment it seemed as if all the secrets were finally about to tumble out. It’s a cruel film: the sexual humiliation to which it repeatedly exposes Hoover, and which earns him our sympathy as a victim of gay-baiting mockery, is easily matched by the almost unconscious psychological bullying to which he subjects a waiter at the Stork Club (a torment which involves a drunken recitation of Kipling’s “If”). After dragging us through a morass of deception, internecine coup attempts, and unconstitutional skulduggery, it winds up expressing a kind of twisted nostalgia for an old order whose corrupt representatives at least had the traces of character associated with actors like Crawford and Dailey. The new breed, glimpsed in a few poisonous scenes at the Nixon White House, lack any personal charm at all and portend nothing but an era of terminal rapacity. Après Hoover, le déluge.


Broderick Crawford (center) as Hoover: a powerfully understated, brilliantly subtle performance.


J. Hoberman for the Village Voice (March 17, 1980):

Overview is one thing that Cohen’s astonishing J. Edgar Hoover biopic has in abundance. According to Cohen, Hoover was the black widow spider of American politics, orchestrating everything from the Palmer raids and the ride of Joe McCarthy to (its strongly implied) the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and the fall of Richard Nixon. When the voice-over tells us that the latter deed was accomplished by “the hand of J. Edgar Hoover reaching back from the grave,” you expect to see the FBI chief played by Vincent Price. Actually, Hoover is impersonated by Broderick Crawford and although Crawford’s bull-elephant bulk gives Hoover greater stature (and humanity) than he deserves, the casting is inspired. Hoover portrays more historical figures than I, Claudius, and uses more cameos than Around the World in 180 Days, and Crawford pushes his great bulldog face through 35 years of barking, wheezing confrontations with each of them.


Hoover is pulp, but it’s pulp of the highest order – a lurid two hours of looming angles, Miklos Rosza bombast, and slyly interpolated newsreel footage. The great Samuel Fuller once expressed an interest in doing Hoover – “He’s sick, cruel, dogmatic, stupid, racist… Everything I like in a character” – and there are moments when Cohen achieves a Fulleresque lunacy. One scene has Hoover presenting his mother with a canary he purchased from the Birdman of Alcatraz, “Why its a sparrow painted yellow!” she snaps. “You’re too gullible, Edgar!” Mother love is the key to Hoover’s personality, and with kabuki blatancy, it’s his mother’s death which transforms the young Hoover into the implacable, liver-spotted Crawford… Cohen is like the anthropologist Geza Roheim, whose ultra-Freudian worldview reduced “politics to penis-worship, warfare to the tantrums of frustrated infants, and economics to a ritual exchange of feces.” He practices psycho-history with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel, but in the extended political cartoon of his film it’s perfectly apt. We’re all acquainted with the delirious, tabloid quality of American life. And far more than the bland TV docudramas it superficially resembles, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover gives it form. In a word, the movie’s a pisser.


Maximum force meets maximalist form.


Michael Joshua Rowin, when the film appeared in William Lustig’s curated series at Anthology last year, for ArtForum:

The most fascinating film of the series might be The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), pulp maestro Larry Cohen’s biopic-as-exposé of the FBI mastermind and Fourth Amendment adversary. Revelations about the personal life of Hoover—portrayed by Broderick Crawford as a prudish, mother-clinging closet case—are now well-known lore, but Cohen draws convincing connections between Hoover’s sexual repression and political obtrusiveness, between private denial and public paranoia. The film makes a case for the ’70s B as both psychological and social muckraker: Shot in Hoover’s real DC stomping grounds with production values that lower any realism to movie-of-the-week quality, Files still bristles with a late-counterculture antiauthoritarianism that trumps most of its Hollywood contemporaries’ attempts (All the President’s Men), and then some.


Time Out (London):

Rattling compulsively along through myth and history like some factoid TV mini-series, but constantly informed by a radical intelligence and humour, Cohen’s analytical biopic surprisingly resolves into a complex investigation of the forces of realpolitik and sexual politics which created an arch-villain/monster from a moralist boy-scout lawyer. The movie may have the look of tabloid sleaze, but it never trades in the simplistic put-down or facile political optimism. If the idea of Hoover as a tragic figure hardly squares with the ’70s consensus, then the playing, especially of Broderick Crawford as Hoover, does much to shift the prejudice; while at the point where post-Watergate cinema would usually present us with a revelatory crusader, Rip Torn’s uptight FBI agent (our narrator) peters out into confused impotence. Genre fans can take comfort, however, since some expectations are happily served… Dillinger dies again.


Outside the Biograph Theater (ahem), mobster John Dillinger meets his bullet-riddled death.
Jay Rothermel for Bright Lights Film Journal:

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover was one of the earliest exposés, though not the liberal monsterfest one would assume. It amalgamates every rumor and accusation brought against Hoover both professionally and politically, and pulls him out freshly vindicated and victorious at the other end. Even the cheapest products of big business media confer the aura of legitimacy. While Cohen rounds up personal scandals, it is his depiction of the professional Hoover that contains the most surprises. His Hoover is no rogue or loose cannon or unscrupulous “godfather.” Rather the opposite: this Hoover rules with judgment and probity in his “crime fighting” and domestic contra operations. He is the Pope of cops. As a centrist organizer of bureaucratic rule, he opposes the episodic and subjectively motivated spying and dirty tricks perpetrated by presidents. He opposes Franklin Roosevelt’s internment of West Coast citizens of Japanese descent; the film portrays this obscenity as the reactionary land grab it was, with FDR and Earl Warren gloating over the spoils. In a later scene, he chastises Senator Joseph McCarthy as an unprincipled opportunist for his irresponsible red-baiting. Hoover fears these tactics will eventually discredit a witch hunt originally organized by Roosevelt and continued by Truman as they prepared their wars of imperial plunder and sought to eradicate any antiwar sentiment in the labor movement.


The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is certainly Larry Cohen’s most ambitious movie. It came at as the culmination of several years of hard-hitting productions. Black Caesar (1973) was a Raoul Walsh gangster movie for the anti-colonial age. It’s Alive (1974) gave a Roe v. Wade twist to Rosemary’s Baby and not so subtly defended Father Right. God Told Me To (1976) is Cohen’s upside-down, inside-out alien invaders story, and one of his finest achievements. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is in keeping with his radically contrarian but completely unprogressive defense of bourgeois institutions.In the end, presidents and their political advisors are unworthy of the power inherent in the institutions they run. Hoover is worthy. He has created an institution and dedicated his life to maintaining the purity of its bloody anti-worker project. He transcends the label “top cop.” His body might be buried, but Cohen nicely conveys his final and pharaonic triumph: the giant FBI headquarters in Washington D.C. is given Hoover’s name.


A humiliated Martin Luther King, Jr. (Raymond St. Jacques) has his dirty laundry thrown back in his face by the eavesdropping Hoover.

Robin Wood in Film Comment (Sept/Oct 1978):

Hoover is perhaps the most intelligent film about American politics ever to come out of Hollywood. I cannot speak for its historical accuracy, or for the justice of its speculative audacities: that Clyde Toison was Deep Throat; that Hoover may have been implicated in the assassination of Bobby Kennedy-a possibility the film, keeping just the safe side of libel, allows us to infer rather than states. But the film would be no less intelligent were its entire structure fictional. It is a question, not of whether what the spectator sees on the screen is “objective truth,” but of the relationship between spectatoi and narrative. The revealing comparison is with All the President’s Men. The overall effect of Alan Pakula’s film is complicated by the pervasive urban paranoia of film noir, a dominant element that makes the film’s relationship to Pakula’s The Parallax View less clearly one of simple contrast than the director seems to have intended. Nevertheless, it offers its audiences satisfactions that Cohen’s film rigorously eschews, notably in its suspense-thriller format and its here identification-figures. Hoover offers no equivalent for Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman; there are no heroes on whom we can rely to have everything put right at the end. No “correct” position is dramatized in the film with which the spectator might identify, by which he might be reassured. As there is no hero to uncover, be threatened by, and finally rectify the corruption, there can be no suspense, only analysis. Beside the obvious thriller brilliance of All the President’s Men. the sobriety and detachment of Hoover might be mistaken for flatness. In fact, the narrative’s ellipses and juxtapositions demand a continual activity on the part of the spectator very different from, and incompatible with, the excitements of “What happens next?”


In the famous Cahiers du cinéma analysis of Young Mr. Lincoln, the editors claimed that the film eventually produces Lincoln as a “monster,” both castrated and castrating. What is arguably implicit (or repressed) in John Ford’s film is the explicit subject of Cohen’s; applied to his Hoover, the Cahiers description is exact, word for word. Two points are made about the “purity” which Hoover attempts to bring to his work: that it is at all stages compromised by the corruptions of the system; and that it is itself artificial, an act of will growing out of a denial of the body. The film translates into overtly political terms the dialectic of its predecessors: neither the purity nor the corruption is sanctioned, they are presented as two aspects of the same sickness. As in It’s Alive, the monster is the logical product of the capitalist system.


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