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The Private Files of J Edgar Hoover


‘…this isn’t history, but it does offer some insights into the reign of Hoover and raises a few questions about how the FBI can and still might be bent to service political motives…’

Yikes! Several regular contributors to this blog pointed out this gap in my Larry Cohen appreciation tip, so tracking down this political thriller/biopic from 1977 has been on the cards for a while; Cohen’s horror and sci-fi films often have a political nous to them, and it’s certainly an unusual film in that it lays bare Cohen’s own unique take on various public figures. The Private Files of J Edgar Hoover wasn’t a hit in the day, and to this date has accumulated a measly three critical reviews on RT, but it’s a pertinent work by a significant, individual film-maker, and there’s certainly enough going on to merit a reappraisal.

Hoover was head of the FBI for almost five decades, and so Cohen gets to pick and choose what incidents to cover from a large chuck of history. That means we see Hoover’s involvement with everyone from Dillinger, who we see gunned down outside a movie theatre, to Martin Luther King, who is the victim of Hoover’s careless use of wire-taps. Other notables portrayed include Damon Runyon, Franklin D Roosevelt, Walter Winchell and Lyndon B Johnson, although Hoover’s mother isn’t even given a name; as played by June Havoc, she’s just Hoover’s Mother. Such vagueness is characteristic of the evasive portrayal of Hoover’s private life; an opening scene indicates Hoover’s lack of interest in women, but his close association with FBI director Clyde Tolson (Dan Dailey) isn’t seen in a sexual way. Hoover’s story comes all the way up to Watergate and beyond, although Cohen’s suggestion that Hoover’s influence was key to Nixon’s fall seems rather fanciful.

With such a huge canvas, and many legal traps within, Cohen is stretched out of his comfort zone with the material of Hoover’s life, but sections of this film spark, notably the conflict between Hoover and Robert Kennedy. Played by Michael Parks in a dishevelled yet charismatic way that’s far from his public image, Robert Kennedy is a key figure in US history, who never gets a film of his own; this is one of the more striking evocations. Otherwise, the main character who we get to understand intimately is Hoover himself; we get that the lack of self-esteem he harbours entails those around him having their lives investigated.

The Private Files of J Edgar Hoover turns out to be rather less salacious than we might hope; we see Hoover pleasuring himself while he listens to the minutiae of sexual behaviour via wire-tap information, but it hardly seems shocking to reveal that the Kennedy brothers had various flings. Cohen’s film is never dull, largely due to a roll-call of crazy cameos from old-timers, Celeste Holm, Jose Ferrer, Rip Torn, Lloyd Nolan and more all contribute bits, and Broderick Crawford makes an appropriately stuffy grown-up Hoover. Filmed in FBI headquarters without the permission of the FBI, this is the kind of unofficial, speculative film that simply wouldn’t be made now, or indeed at any time over the last fifty years. This isn’t history, but it does offer some insights into the reign of Hoover and raises a few questions about how the FBI can and still might be bent to service political motives that don’t benefit the public. Moral rot starts at the top, even for a cold fish like J Edgar; Cohen’s film at least asks the right questions, even if the answers remain REDACTED.


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  1. According to Variety the only screenings it had in the US was in Kansas City. The reason it turned up 4 years later at the NYFF was it had been shelved.

    • It’s an obscurity for sure, but even in the horrid YouTube telecine, it’s watchable enough. Keen to hear more opinions about this movie, because there isn’t much online!

      • I think a documentary simply showing the pages of the instruction booklets for various vacuums could have potential. The market is wide open for that kind of thing right now…

          • I think we have a bona fida cinema gold mine on our hands.
            Now we just have to make sure no else steals our idea. I hear that happens a lot in Hollywood.

              • Wait, what?!?
                I helped Save Cinema? Ohhhh, what have I done? You’re going to have to credit me posthumously as Judas McHoover then. I can’t live with this shame.

                    • I was thinking along the lines of Paul Atreides from Dune.
                      Blind myself, horribly disfigure myself and then kill myself. Just to avoid the future I’d seen.

                      Maud is an indian pop sensation? I thought they were undercover hippie police. The Maud Squad, you know?

                    • The Mod Squad. But are they hippies, or do they sort the hippies out?

                      Hail Hooverstooge, saviour of cinema!

                    • I’ve never seen it, so I don’t know. I was kind of hoping for hippies killing other hippies. Making the world a better place and all that.

                      Nooooooooooooo!!! I don’t want to. So there.

                    • Too late, sold plenty of tickets for a meet and greet with you! Just man up and accept it!

                    • Wow, what a blackguard you are. I’m not sure I can associate with someone who is that evil. I think we better go our separate ways.
                      But before we go, I have a lovely parting present for you. I give you this wonderful trophy that says “Savor of the Sinema” on it. You deserve this more than I do.

                      I’m free!!!!!!

                    • Ok, no, it’s Kristen Sinema that you saved, not these draughty old popcorn factories.

                    • I helped save a Politician?!?
                      Oh. My. Goodness.

                      Can it get any worse? I didn’t think i could have sunk lower, but you showed me how. What a horrible nightmare. First I save Cinema, then I save Sinema. Can I wake up now?

                    • Psychic Grandma strikes again ! You have actually saved nothing! It was all a ruse! She saw you coming!

                    • Oh what a relief!
                      For once, I am thankful for Psychic G’s interference. I’d even give her a bottle of peptobismal….

                    • Wow, I knew she was tough, but I guess she’s a whole other level than your regular tough.
                      Makes me wonder who would win, Psychic G or Jet Li? For some reason, he doesn’t chug any pepto in any of the movies I’ve seen him in.

                    • She defeated him over three bouts. Three knockouts, no points deliberations. Faces Creed in the next round, winner fights the runner up between Cocaine Bear or M3GAN

                    • Man, Peptobismal must be paying a mint for these big names to be chugging their product.

                      My bets on Coke Bear. If she can eat a dufflebag of coke, I don’t see ANY amount of pepto giving her a problem.
                      Plus, dolls, no matter how possessed or roboticized, can drink even a sip of pepto. It would gum up her works.

                    • Cocaine Bear is indeed the likely winner unless M3GAN gets her mits on that machete…

                    • That is probably for the best. And thankfully, my “art” skills aren’t up to drawing one either, so I guess the world is safe, yet again!

  2. Never heard of this, but can see Cohen being intrigued. Sort of thing that a really guerilla biopic could run with. Eastwood’s J. Edgar was too staid.

    films often has, an almost five decades, isn’t even given as name

    • Thanks for the typos. Eastwood’s film was a lot less interesting than this. I watched this of YouTube, but I couldn’t recommend the print.

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