The DVD Report #245

Chances are there will never be a film that will give us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about J. Edgar Hoover, the sole director of the FBI from its creation in March, 1935 until his death in May, 1972. Two theatrical films and several TV movies have tried and failed both artistically and commercially, as well as truthfully.

Clint Eastwood’s high profile 2011 film, J. Edgar, was preceded thirty-four years earlier by Larry Cohen’s less hyped The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover with the TV movies sandwiched in-between. When critics say the film failed because no one today knows who J. Edgar Hoover was, I don’t think that’s true. It may be true that no one today cares about J. Edgar Hoover.

Both films expose Hoover as someone who took credit for other people’s work in law enforcement and a tyrant who held six presidents at bay through the powers he held. An outright hostile relationship with Robert Kennedy, John Kennedy’s Attorney General and Hoover’s immediate boss, takes up much of the screen time in Cohen’s film but is all but glossed over in Eastwood’s. Hints of a sexual relationship between Hoover and his assistant, Clyde Tolson are hinted at in Cohen’s film but are a bit less subtle in Eastwood’s. Still, it’s all handled as speculation. His often irrational, rabid anti-communism is portrayed in both films as is his hated of Martin Luther King and his keeping of wiretapped telephone conversations between celebrities and his dying instructions to his secretary to destroy the tapes.

The acting by Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer as Hoover and Tolson in Eastwood’s film is strong, but Broderick Crawford and Dan Dailey who play the pair in Cohen’s film are more physically suited to their roles. DiCaprio’s matinee idol looks are so familiar that no amount of latex can make you think of him as the physically repulsive man Hoover thought of himself as. Crawford and James Wainright, who played Hoover as a young man in Cohen’s film are far more believable in that regard.

Both films give short shrift to their supporting casts. Michael Parks as Robert Kennedy and Rip Torn as a second generation FBI agent have the largest supporting roles in Cohen’s film. Judi Dench as Hoover’s mother and Naomi Watts as his secretary have that distinction in Eastwood’s film. None of them, however, have all that much to do. The only one in the Eastwood film who seems to be having any fun is Lea Thompson as Leila Rogers (Ginger’s mother).

The Eastwood DVD and Blu-ray release come with the standard extras. The Cohen DVD release is bare bones.

A week after the DVD release of Take Shelter comes another new film in which the central character suffers from paranoia. Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene provides Elizabeth “Lizzie” Olsen with a star-making turn as an escapee from a Manson-like cult. The young actress is in almost every scene and carries the film with great distinction.

John Hawkes as the creepy leader of the cult and Sarah Paulson as Olsen’s perplexed older sister are both excellent, but the usually capable Hugh Dancy is disappointing as Paulson’s new husband. Maybe it was in the script, but the actor comes across as a bit of a prig.

Never one to shy away from controversy – in fact he courted it – Otto Preminger’s classic courtroom drama, Anatomy of a Murder has been given a spiffy upgrade by the Criterion Collection. Newly released on both Blu-ray and standard DVD, the fifty-three year-old film has lost none of its dramtic intensity. To be sure, sensational courst cases are dime a dozen on Tv these days, but finely written, fully textured screenplays written for the screen are still a rare commodity.

The film is based on a best-selling novel by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker writing under the pseudonym Robert Taver. James Stewart, seemingly cast against type, has one of his last great screen roles, one for which he earned his second New York Film critics Award and his fifth Oscar nomination. I say seemingly because throughout the 1950s Stewart’s roles had become tougher, edgier. His backwoods attorney is a combination of the tougher Stewart and the pre-war nice boy next door he personified.

Complimenting Stewart’s marvelous star turn is a gallery of fine character performances from Lee Remick as an alleged rape victim; Ben Gazzara as the volatile husband on trial for the murder of her alleged attacker; Arthur O’Connell as Stewart’s alcoholic partner; Eve Arden as his loyal secretary; Kathryn Grant (Crosby) as a surprise witness for the defense; George c. Scott as a slimy prosecutor and legendary Army-McCarthy lawyer Joseph N. Welch in his only acting role as the presiding judge.

There are a number of interesting extras including a recent interview with film historian Foster Hirsch on Preminger’s role in bringing an end to the Hollywood Production Code.

John Ford’s Fort Apache is famously recalled as the first of three films made from 1948-1950 about the U.S. cavalry, generally referred to as Ford’s cavalry trilogy. Technically, however, Ford never intended the films as part of a trilogy. The only things Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon have in common, aside from their setting, are John Wayne and several of Ford’s traveling company of character actors. Rio Grande, however, is a sequel to Fort Apache with Wayne playing an odler version of his character from the earlier film.

Although Wayne is top-billed in Fort Apache which Warner Bros, has given a spiffy Blu-ray upgrade, the central character is Henry Fonda in one of his best roles as a martinet modeled after Gen. Custer. The pig-headed Indian hater leads his men on a foolish charge to kill Geronimo and the Apaches from which few survive. The press paints him a hero which precedes by fourteen years Ford’s more contemplative take on printing the legend instead of the truth in the 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

The film benefits from its Monument Valley locations, strong screenplay by Frank S. Nugent and some wonderful set pieces. The sterling supporting cast includes Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, George O’Brien, Pedro Armandariz, Dick Foran, Irene Rich, Anna Lee and in her first grown-up role, Shirley Temple opposite John Agar, her then husband in his film debut.

This week’s new DVD releases include Hugo and the Blu-ray debut of the once controversial classic, classic Scarlet Street.

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