Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, The (1977)

Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, The (1977)

“There are no secrets in Washington.”

When J. Edgar Hoover (Broderick Crawford) dies suddenly in 1972, his secretary (Ellen Barber) rushes to shred his massive “personal files”, filled with secrets about numerous political elites — including Robert Kennedy (Michael Parks), Martin Luther King, Jr. (Raymond St. Jacques), FDR (Howard Da Silva), JFK (William Jordan), and others. Meanwhile, a former FBI agent (Rip Torn) reflects on his years of service to Hoover, as well as the “open secret” of Hoover’s deep friendship with his closest aide (Dan Dailey).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Biopics
  • Blackmail
  • Broderick Crawford Films
  • Celeste Holm Films
  • Dan Dailey Films
  • Jose Ferrer Films
  • Larry Cohen Films
  • Political Corruption
  • Rip Torn Films

So-called “guerrilla filmmaker” Larry Cohen — best known for directing It’s Alive! (1974) and God Told Me To (1976) — was bold to make this openly critical film about notorious FBI head J. Edgar Hoover at a time when Hoover had only been dead a few years, and politicians were understandably leery about having the skeletons in their closets exposed.

Thanks to ingenuity and grit — as well as former First Lady Betty Ford’s appreciation for Dan Dailey, in what ended up being his final role:

— Cohen managed to direct this movie in many of its original locations, including casting Hoover’s actual barber and waiter:

Unfortunately, the film itself isn’t all that satisfying or comprehensible unless you happen to be an American history buff with knowledge of the various rapid-fire events unfolding between the 1920s and 1970s; as noted by Janet Maslin in her review for the New York Times, the movie “hovers midway between soap opera and expose”, and “mostly barrels along at a flat, uninteresting pace, with no big scenes to give it any structure.”

With that said, I felt much better informed after following up by watching an actual documentary about Hoover, which filled in many gaps, and helped me understood writer-director-producer Larry Cohen’s intent to highlight the rampant corruption (no surprise!) behind just about every political situation and figure in U.S. history — and how Hoover managed to keep his position for decades due to his savvy intelligence. Among many scenes, we see young Hoover (James Wainwright) taking over the FBI just after the Palmer Raids:

… Hoover’s desire to give the FBI both respectability and authentic clout:

… the deep mistrust Hoover held for women (Ronee Blakley, Celeste Holm) who were romantically interested in him at various points in his career:

… the role Hoover’s hovering mother (June Havoc) may have played in his personality and/or sexual orientation:

… Hoover’s frustration at suddenly being the underling of a much-younger RFK (and how he managed to reassert his authority):

… Hoover’s close alliance with Joe McCarthy (George Wallace):

… and Hoover’s lifelong addiction to gambling, which may have led to his avoidance of dealing with the Mafia.

Note: You’ll have to give wide berth to the appearances of the actors playing various Big Names in History here, who look almost nothing like their real-life counterparts (see if you can guess who’s on screen in each of the stills below):

(1. FDR, 2. LBJ, 3. MLK.)

Note: I haven’t (yet) seen Clint Eastwood’s 2011 film J. Edgar, starring Leonardo Di Caprio in the title role, though I’m especially curious now to check it out in comparison.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A boldly scathing (for the time) look at Hoover’s instrumental role in shaping the FBI

Must See?
No, though of course it’s worth a look if you’re interested in Hoover and the FBI. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.


One thought on “Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, The (1977)

  1. First viewing. A once-must, for its subject matter. As per my post in ‘Revival House of Camp & Cult’ (fb):

    “You know how Mr. Hoover was about anything… sexual.”

    ‘The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover’ (1977): Since I was mostly familiar with writer / director Larry Cohen’s work in horror films (i.e., ‘It Lives’, ‘God Told Me To’, etc.), I wasn’t anticipating anything as surprisingly compelling as this largely respectable biopic. (And I actually thought it would be a bit shoddy, which it isn’t.) Covering Hoover’s entire career as head of the FBI was no doubt a daunting task for a 2-hour film but Cohen managed to lay out the most significant bullet points and string them together as a cohesive narrative.

    It seems that, when Cohen screened the film at the White House, its depiction of Nixon angered Republicans and its view of FDR upset Democrats. But apparently no one was bothered by the fact that the film only dances around the issue of Hoover’s sexuality (something Clint Eastwood’s ‘J. Edgar’ – written by a gay man, Dustin Lance Black – would address specifically). Cohen himself said he didn’t think that Hoover was gay (!) – but, ironically, his own film (though elliptical about it) seems to contain enough evidence to the contrary.

    The biggest surprise of all here is Broderick Crawford’s sturdy (and layered) performance as J. Edgar. Watching Crawford in action, we see a man so in charge of his own power that we can believe just how formidable a force Hoover was – for decades!

    The film features a large cast of well-known actors, most of whom are only on-screen briefly (i.e., Celeste Holm, Ronee Blakley, Jack Cassidy, Howard Da Silva – as FDR, Andrew Duggan – as Lyndon B. Johnson, Raymond St. Jacques – as Martin Luther King, etc.). But there are some who are allowed fuller portraits: Michael Parks (rather good as Robert Kennedy), Dan Dailey (as Clyde Tolson – Hoover’s ‘significant other’), Jose Ferrer, Rip Torn, Lloyd Nolan and John Marley.

    As with almost any biopic, you’re still going to have to look elsewhere to ‘fill in the blanks’ but Cohen’s film is a worthy contribution to the study of this dark personality.

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