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Film Review: The FBI Story (1959)

“Greatest crimefighters of the nation — on their most exciting assignments — from Chicago’s underworld to jungle ambush in South America. Filmed on location to capture each thrilling aspect of its best-selling story!”

Such is the tagline for the 1959 film The FBI Story, a long and occasionally-winded tale filled with murder schemes, gangsters, and (gasps in 1959ese) Communists. Woven through the story of the beginning of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, this film may rightly be called an “epic”.

Synopsis

The FBI Story is the story of Chip Hardesty (James Stewart): a young lawyer in the early 1920’s who joins the fledgling federal law enforcement agency called the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Chip is a young lawyer with great ambitions and a heart for justice, who is torn between his interest in the agency and the pleadings of his girlfriend Lucy (Vera Miles). While Lucy wants him to settle down and start his own law practice, Chip becomes captivated by the thought of a new and exciting national law enforcement force dedicated to justice. Of course, a few idealistic jabs by his friend Sam Crandall (Murray Hamilton) don’t hurt things either. In time, Lucy sees that Chip just won’t be convinced otherwise, and agree early on in their married life to give this new career a try.

Soon after their wedding, Chip is shown investigating a string of suspicious Native American deaths in Oklahoma, seemingly related to the oil that they have only just begun to get rich off of. Once that case is cleared off, Chip and Sam then proceed to the South to break up a string of violence perpetrated by the klan. After this case, the film progresses into the heyday of the American gangster, and the FBI’s efforts to crack down on lawlessness and to bring the criminals to justice. Along the way, agents Hardesty and Crandall gain an important development in the history of the FBI: the ability to use firearms. This, however, proves to be of limited help when Chip and Sam are gunned down by Baby Face Nelson during a holdup and carjacking in Wisconsin. Chip makes it out wounded, Sam does not.

The film then progresses into the days of World War II, and balances Chip’s home life raising three grown children (two of which aid in the war effort), while helping to root out Nazi involvements in South America.

When the war is over, the film’s final act focuses on the main political scourge of the 1950’s: Communism. Chip helps to manage and direct a sting operation that may or may not help capture important microfilm containing secret information passed between home-grown Communist agents. Whether this sting operation is pulled off successfully, however, is something you’ll have to find out for your own; no spoilers here.

Review

I don’t mind a good epic. Citizen Kane, Ben-Hur… long sprawling films with vast arrays of storyline backed by stellar casts. The FBI Story comes at you with the initial energy of an action or crime film thanks to its thrilling first scene, but eventually unfolds into a surprisingly long, yet thought-out epic about the early decades of the FBI. Mervyn LeRoy aptly directs film, with only a few slow movements (ironically, the more domestic scenes). LeRoy was no stranger to producing classics of almost every genre, including the Pre-Code classics Three on a Match and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (both 1932), musicals like Gold Diggers of 1933 and Gypsy (1962), comedies like Lovely to Look At (1952) and a personal favorite of mine, Mister Roberts (1955), and even dabbled in romance (Random Harvest, 1942) and horror (The Bad Seed, 1956).

Jimmy Stewart, fresh off of two starring turns in Bell Book and Candle and Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic fever-dream Vertigo (both 1958), comes through and plays Chip with both heart and a strong American sense of truth and justice. I’m still not for sure how the 51-year old Stewart plays a young law graduate with such honesty and believability, but he does and admirably. As time (in the film) progresses, Stewart retains the sense of duty and stalwart upright nature that came to represent the public image of the Bureau throughout the film, and keeps the story moving along. If you’re new to Jimmy Stewart and want a quick sampling of his work, I’d recommend the following films (in order, if you’d like to see his progression as an actor):

  • After The Thin Man (1936): classic Nick and Nora Charles mystery with a surprise ending
  • Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939): both as a classic Jimmy Stewart good-guy role, and as a classic pro-American Capra vehicle
  • The Shop Around The Corner and The Philadelphia Story (both 1940): bubbly romantic comedies from great directors. Philadelphia Story especially for the brilliant cast and dialog
  • Winchester ’73 (1950): in my opinion, the seminal Jimmy Stewart western.
  • Vertigo (1958): don’t get me wrong: I love The Man Who Knew Too Much and Rope, but Vertigo takes the cake. Brilliantly-produced thriller about a man struggling with his demons, taking on a mysterious case that pushes him to (and past?) the limits of his sanity.
  • Anatomy of a Murder (1959): a great courtroom drama case, with expert direction by Otto Preminger and a star-making turn for Lee Remick

Vera Miles does an admirable job in the film as Chip’s long-suffering (and I mean that almost literally) wife Lucy, but I feel she may have gotten somewhat short-changed by the story. True, the film’s primary purpose was to be an action-packed tale of the FBI’s origins, but it almost feels that the Hardesty’s private lives and struggles seem a bit shoe-horned in to string along audiences. In all honesty, the “private lives” portions of the film could be excised and the reworked film could easily have worked as a gripping serial. That being said, Miles still takes what is given and turns out a great performance as Chip’s steadying influence. Miles had a career on television and some film roles prior to The FBI Story (namely as Rose Balestrero in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, 1956), and would go on to co-star in classics such as Psycho (1960) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (another great Stewart western, 1962). As a recommendation, run (don’t walk) to see The Searchers (1956); quite possibly the most beautifully-filmed western ever made and one of my personal favorites.

Besides Stewart and Miles, the film contains steady character and “stock” players in mostly smaller roles: Murray Hamilton as Chip’s best friend Sam (Hamilton would go on to tell people the water was completely fine in Jaws), Nick Adams as a doting son with other ideas on his mind (Adams can be seen in several bit parts through the ’50s; catch him in Pillow Talk, Rebel Without a Cause, and Mister Roberts), and Parley Baer (whose iconic voice has graced TV shows like Dragnet, I Love Lucy, and the Andy Griffith Show).

It’s a long movie, but an epic about the iconic law-enforcement institution requires a lot of story-telling. And it is done quite well here.

If you choose to pick up The FBI Story on DVD, I’d recommend this 4-pack from TCM and Warner Brothers’ Legends series. This pack also contains The Shop Around the Corner, The Stratton Story, and The Spirit of St Louis: https://amzn.to/31osjlj

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Reviewing, discussing, and generally geeking out over the magic of classic films and those who create that magic. From Vidor to Tarantino, come explore the magic.

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Jake Woehlke

Jake Woehlke

Creator, marketer, and support consultant taking 2021 to become a financially independent digital nomad. Come wander with me. // jakewoehlke.com

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