As its title suggests, The FBI Story is not about one person, but an army of intelligence agents and analysts in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It is about the department’s growth from a disorganized arm of the federal government to a powerful crime-fighting force under the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover. But it is also about, or tries to be about, Agent Chip Hardesty, a fictitious agent who fights the KKK, hoodlums, gangsters, and communists while struggling to keep his marriage and family intact.
He’s in the thick of all the action, but he’s not the brains behind it. As director Mervyn LeRoy (Little Caesar, producer of The Wizard of Oz) flips through the landmarks of FBI history he does not ascribe much to his lead character, played, of course, by James Stewart. Okay, he does take the lead in the earlier episodes: arresting KKK members in Tennessee, investigating the murders of Native Americans in Oklahoma. But once the dangerous 1930s roll through Agent Chip is a side-player, hopping onto half-finished cases, firing one gun of many, and following rather than leading the charges.
This is realistic, but it makes for an odd narrative, and an odd James Stewart movie. The shooting and arrest of Babyface Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger, and Ma Barker among others is played out like TV dramatizations. Apart from the Native American murder mystery, none of the cases are explored in enough depth to be intriguing.
It feels like propaganda, especially when Stewart’s voiceover tells us American communists “betrayed their country”. In the opening sequence Stewart narrates the investigation into a plane explosion, taking us into the labs of FBI scientists and criminologists. Praise is heaped on these men and women, the real heroes of the story, throughout the film. Hoover himself is shown only in shadow or from the back like Seinfeld‘s Steinbrenner. He apparently picked Stewart personally for the role and forced LeRoy to reshoot several scenes.
Stewart was an engaging, even menacing, protagonist in Anthony Mann’s Westerns and Hitchcock’s thrillers, but here he bumbles through his sappy relationship with his patient wife Lucy (Vera Miles, also better with Hitchcock). When he’s making arrests he takes a backseat to a conveyor belt of interchangeable FBI agents. His one companion Sam (Murray Hamilton, who co-starred with Stewart in The Spirit of St. Louis) is shot by Baby Face at Spider Lake, Wisconsin.
The real shooting took place at Little Bohemia Lodge. Michael Mann’s Public Enemies renders this scene and Dillinger’s death outside the Biograph Theatre in more detail.
Stewart’s character is neither interesting nor especially integral to these proceedings. I found myself thinking of this film in the larger context of the actor’s career. Released in 1959, The FBI Story is post-Vertigo (a film coolly received upon release) and pre-The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (also under-appreciated). Stewart has reached his 50s and can no longer convincingly play younger men – though they tried their damnedest in The Spirit of St. Louis. You know an actor’s career is winding slowly down when the film he stars in don’t seem to need him after the ad campaign.