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The FBI Story

The James Stewart Signature Collection

Were it not for James Stewart's reassuring, authoritative presence, The FBI Story (1959) would come across as exactly what it is — a recruiting film for the storied federal law-enforcement agency, overseen by J. Edgar Hoover to such a degree that he approved Stewart as the star, appears in a cameo, and even made FBI agents available at all times on the set. In exchange, the filmmakers were given access to the Bureau's resources, as well as its seal of approval. Stewart stars as Chip Hardesty, a young attorney who takes a job with the fledgling agency in the 1920s, but soon finds himself disillusioned by its lack of direction or organization, particularly at his field office in Knoxville, Tenn., where nobody seems to be interested in stopping crime at all. Newly married to Lucy Ann (Vera Miles), he vows to start up a new career practicing law — until the arrival of J. Edgar Hoover causes him to believe that the Bureau is about to become a new, efficient, highly disciplined organization. Throughout his career, Hardesty takes on several dangerous assignments, from tracking down Depression-era gangsters like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd to uncovering a scheme to murder Oklahoma Indians for oil money, tracking a communist agent throughout New York City, battling the Ku Klux Klan "down south," pulling exposed agents out of South America, and finding an airline saboteur. Throughout it all, he and Lucy Ann have two children, while Chip's partner Sam Crandall (Murray Hamilton) becomes a close family friend. But while all of Chip's cases turn out successful in the end, he can't prevent tragedy from striking close to home.

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The FBI Story isn't quite propaganda, but it also lacks an impartial voice — at no point are we led to believe that the FBI can't solve a case, and we also are never told of any mistakes that might have occurred in the Bureau during Hardesty's 30-year career. Furthermore, it's carefully noted that, after Pearl Harbor, the FBI rounded up a lot of foreign nationals and sent them home, but it had nothing to do with Japanese-American internment camps. According to The FBI Story, under Hoover's watch the FBI represents the last line of defense between decent citizens and the killers, crooks, and spies who seek to disrupt the American way of life. And not only are we treated to several short stories featuring Hoover's finest in action, but we also are taken behind the scenes, where experts in fingerprints, handwriting, firearms, and explosives easily shake down a feeble criminal's scheme as if it were a house of cards (crooks are to take notice, while taxpayers can be assured that their money is well spent). If it all sounds terrible, it isn't — for starters, it stars a square-jawed Jimmy Stewart doing battle with Klansmen, commies, public enemies, and con-artists, which makes it a very easy film to enjoy. Moreover, The FBI Story is simply a product of its time. In our post-Watergate era, filmgoers tend to expect a little corruption from their cops and politicians. In the age of Sputnik, the opposite was true, and director Mervyn LeRoy does his best to explain why a complex, well-funded, domestic counterintelligence agency lurking in our midst is a very, very good thing. At least Hoover was savvy enough to understand that his message would mean nothing without the right star, and James Stewart proves the right fit (and a sympathetic one, to Hoover; Stewart's anti-communist hawkishness was well known in Hollywood). And the agency's attention to detail means that the story's procedural elements are accurate. Nonetheless, running well over two hours, and with a half-dozen self-contained stories, the film would have been a far better TV series. Such eventually happened, starting in 1965 with Quinn Martin's long-running "The F.B.I.", which also had a measure of Bureau assistance and oversight, right up to J. Edgar Hoover himself. Warner's DVD release of The FBI Story, part of the "James Stewart Signature Collection," features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a nearly flawless color source-print, with the original monaural audio on a DD 1.0 track. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.

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