Saturday, February 2, 2019

The FBI Story (1959)

Director: Mervyn LeRoy                                Writers: Richard L. Breen & John Twist
Film Score: Max Steiner                                Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc
Starring: Jimmy Stewart, Vera Miles, Murray Hamilton and Nick Adams

There’s nothing that can kill a screenplay faster than working in cooperation with a government agency in trying to come up with a story they’ll accept. The only exception to this rule seems to be the U.S. Navy. Two great films came out of collaboration with the Navy, The Caine Mutiny in 1954 and The Final Countdown in 1980. But these seem to be the exceptions that prove the rule. This 1959 effort by Warner Brothers, The FBI Story, is a case in point. It’s a tepid, watered-down drama that turns nearly every impressive feat in the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation into a bad TV show. To make matters worse, because they had Jimmy Stewart the screenwriters then attempted to compensate by making the rest of the story into a combination of It’s a Wonderful Life and an afternoon soap opera. The associations with Capra’s great post-war film are too pointed to miss. Vera Miles is simply a more modern version of Donna Reed. It rains on their honeymoon, just like it did on George and Mary’s wedding day. Their car could be the very one used in the Capra film, and the train station he leaves from is named Granville--just like the old Granville house the Bailey’s own in Bedford Falls. By the time Miles becomes pregnant, the fact that he doesn’t say, “Lucy, you’re on the nest?” is almost a shock.

The film begins with the worst possible opening there is, something they teach students in grade school to avoid: the dreaded dictionary definition. But here we have Jimmy Stewart on the voiceover quoting the Webster’s International Dictionary definition of murder. The prologue tells the story of Nick Adams, who plants a time bomb in his mother’s suitcase and blows her and the plane she’s on out of the sky. Even J. Edgar Hoover has a cameo in the beginning. The tale of how Adams is caught turns out to be a speech by Stewart to new recruits to the FBI. Then he takes his audience back to his own beginnings as an FBI agent and the way his career mirrored the growth of the national investigative police force. Stewart was working for Parley Baer in the twenties, and courting Vera Miles. She doesn’t want to marry him because being an FBI agent seems like a dead-end job, but she agrees when he says he’ll quit. When he meets Hoover, however, he reneges and they spend the next two decades moving all over the country. The film spends what seems an inordinate amount of time on the Osage Murders in the twenties, which is interesting to a point, but when it comes to the excitement of hunting down the gangers of the thirties each one is given between thirty seconds and a minute before moving on to the next. Finally Miles has had enough and moves back in with her parents and takes the three kids with her, but she eventually comes back. And that’s only half the film. The rest is just as mind-numbing.

When you stop to consider that this film was made the same year Hitchcock made North by Northwest with Cary Grant, it seems shockingly bad by comparison. Murray Hamilton is Stewart’s partner for much of the film but, like the rest of the principals, the dialogue is so bland and the drama so torpid that no actors could have made it interesting. Stewart’s character is also strangely drawn. He says incredibly inappropriate things at the wrong times, behaving selfishly when his wife has a miscarriage and his son dies. World War Two, the Cold War, the film just keeps going on and on. Any one of the vignettes might have made an interesting film, but strung together as they are in digest form there’s no possibility for any real dramatic arc or central conflict to emerge. And further, the idea that Jimmy Stewart’s character is in on every major development of the agency is patently unbelievable. Mervyn LeRoy’s direction is pedestrian at best, and even Max Steiner’s score is unable to provide any real artistry to the production. Apparently Hoover himself wanted to approve every frame of film, forcing the director to re-shoot several scenes--and it shows. It’s also said that Hoover wouldn’t let the production go forward until he had collected a file full of “dirt” on Mervyn LeRoy. In the end, what was such a shock for me is that this is the first time I’d ever seen Jimmy Stewart in a really bad film--which is the only way to describe The FBI Story.

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