The political thriller is an old Hollywood tradition. The comic-book fantasy is a newer Hollywood tradition. Now the two have been combined by Larry Cohen, a filmmaker with a history in such shadowy areas as blaxploitation ("Black Caesar") and horro flicks ("It's Alive").
"The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover" has had a rocky history. It was originally released by American International Pictures as a "taut political thriller" in Kansas City and Washington, D.C. It did poorly at the box office and was put on the shelf despite a great success in London, where it was shown in theaters and on TV.
Now the enterprising Joseph Papp is giving the film another chance by including it in his current Film at the Public series at the Public Theater in New York. With a little luck, this could be a whole new beginning for a crazily entertaining little movie.
The secret to enjoying "The Private Files" is not to take it seriously. True , the second half is talky and gets into various Big Issues. But the film's real rewards are found in the first half, which is as crazily energetic as any movie we've had in months.
There's J. Edgar as a young man, protecting the rights of oppressed aliens. Cut. There he is a little older, taking over the FBI. Cut. Now a woman wants to embrace him, but he pushes her away, saying that no woman could ever love him. Cut. Now he's on his way back to headquarters after arresting a wanted criminal, and he's gotten lost. And so it goes, one wildly melodramatic episode after another.
The filming of these scenes is heightened by stark camera angles, broad performances, and livid colors. It's a comic book come to life -- except the characters are John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Damon Runyon, and people like that. Cohen's screenplay paints an accusatory picture of Hoover, but the director allows Broderick Crawford to deliver a strong and sympathetic performance, which somewhat balances things out. Then again, balance has little to do with this delirious, extravagant thriller. It's a rare thing: for better or worse, a one-of-a-kind movie.