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Warner Home Video presents

The FBI Story (1959)

"We don't insinuate. We simply collect evidence."- Chip Hardesty (James Stewart)

Stars: James Stewart, Vera Miles, Murray Hamilton
Director: Mervyn LeRoy

MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 02h:28m:53s
Release Date: 2006-08-15
Genre: crime

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
C B-C+B- D-


DVD Review

Here's a law enforcement epic that even J. Edgar Hoover could love—in fact, he even puts in a cameo, indicating that this is an officially sanctioned and fully authorized Bureau project. Say what you will about Hoover as a public servant or as a man whose personal life may not have fully embraced family values; it's clear that he wasn't much of a story editor, because the cost of his imprimatur is the fact that this movie is a mile wide and an inch deep.

James Stewart stars as Chip Hardesty, a fresh-faced young Fed when we meet him; the tale takes him through decades of personal and professional life, and the suggestion is that he's the Bureau, and America, incarnate—upstanding family man, with a keen moral compass, a fervent sense of right and wrong, a need to serve, a hunger to pass lessons on to his children and his trainees, all with a modesty that makes him shun the spotlight. The framing device features an older Hardesty delivering an orientation lecture to the FBI's newest recruits; it's an opportunity for him to revisit tales of past glory, and to tell us the tale of the Bureau's evolution into a force of muscular goodness, under Chief Hoover's divine guidance.

Hardesty encounters a rogues' gallery of bad guys through the years, and at times it's almost like a catalogue of public enemies—he's got an almost Gump-like sense of being in the right place at the right time, for Chip is in on the arrests of Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger, Ma Barker, Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson, and a cast of thousands. The movie follows the organization of the Bureau under Hoover's guidance, and as it moves forward from the 1920s to the 1950s, the issues it takes on vary from organized crime to Nazi agents in the U.S. to the Red Menace—in fact, there's a great climactic chase at Yankee Stadium, during a Giants game, when a couple of no-good Commie rats are being rounded up. There's not much of a throughline to all this, though, so it frequently feels as if we're watching hastily assembled highlights from a season's worth of a 1950s TV show.

The movie ping pongs between the FBI and Hardesty's home life—early on, he convinces a pretty young librarian to marry him, but Lucy doesn't much care for the Bureau, and the dangers this line of work poses for her man. We see them raise a growing family, and Chip remains torn about his work—I can't take life in the Bureau! I can't leave the Bureau! The movie doesn't much go in for transitions, so we get some headspinning turns, cutting from the announcement of Lucy's first pregnancy to Chip on the tail of the Klan, or Christmas with the Hardestys up against finding and dispensing of Dillinger at the Biograph.

Hardesty and all the other agents have an almost religious devotion to Hoover, and their lack of skepticism is almost endearing. It's a film full of procedural fascinations—fingerprints, forensics, handwriting experts—and occasionally has a creepy new relevance, such as in the opening sequence, which features Hardesty foiling a plot to place a time bomb in with the cargo of an airplane. James Stewart is stolid as Hardesty, and is in many respects the glue that holds this structurally shoddy film together; Vera Miles is fine as his wife, but you get the sense that the movie just doesn't much care about anything than the job. (It's like Miles' role is the forebear of Sissy Spacek's in JFK, and the real action is where the boys are.) It's a sloppy but relentlessly patriotic picture; but if you find it a little boring and disjointed, don't worry, it doesn't mean that you hate freedom.

Rating for Style: C
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The colors have remained reasonably well saturated, though sometimes they border on the garish here; there's a fair amount of scratching on the print as well.

Image Transfer Grade: C+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The mono track is unobtrusive, though occasionally pocked with static.

Audio Transfer Grade: B- 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 37 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Only chapter stops, subtitles and a trailer.

Extras Grade: D-

Final Comments

A weirdly bifurcated and fully sanitized telling of the early decades of the FBI, offering only James Stewart's standup performance as modest redemption from the overall blandness.

Jon Danziger 2006-08-14