Cinema Classics: “The FBI Story” (1959)

In just over a week, Martin Scorsese’s highly-anticipated next film, Killers of the Flower Moon, will have its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. The over three hour period epic is an adaptation of David Grann’s best-selling 2017 non-fiction book which details the Osage Indian murders. Occurring from roughly the 1910s through the early 1930s, with emphasis on the “Reign of Terror” that lasted from 1921 to 1926, Grann (the full title of his book is Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI) flips between the perspective of the members of the Osage Nation in Osage County, Oklahoma who are the victims of violent crime and murder by white men trying to control their vast oil fortunes, and the members of the FBI trying to solve the case, the organization having only just been founded in 1908 and experimenting with new, cutting-edge methods of analyzing evidence. Grann’s book is both a thrilling crime tale and a sobering account of white America’s injustices against the Native Americans, stretching from the late 1800s all the way through to today.

I have high hopes for Scorsese’s film adaptation, although his movie is not the first time the Osage Indian murders have been depicted on screen. In 1959, director Mervyn LeRoy brought another best-selling book to the big screen with his movie The FBI Story. Reporter Don Whitehead’s The FBI Story: A Report to the People is a history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, written with the cooperation of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. The famously-controlling Hoover’s direct involvement ought to be enough of an indication as to how sanitized the material in the book is, and that carries over to the film, which romanticizes the agents and their jobs to a fault (even in Twin Peaks, Agent Dale Cooper proudly displays a poster for this movie over his bed). Hoover (who even briefly appears in The FBI Story as himself) oversaw virtually every aspect of the film’s production, serving as a producer in all but name. He suggested James Stewart for the role of the movie’s protagonist, “Chip” Hardesty, an FBI agent whose exploits the story follows over a few decades, ranging from the murder of gangster John Dillinger to taking down communists; Hoover believed that Stewart projected a good guy persona that would cast the agency in a favorable light. He placed a least a couple of FBI agents on the set of the film at all times, performed security checks on every crew member involved in the production, and personally approved every frame of the film, even prompting LeRoy to reshoot some scenes that he felt portrayed the agency too negatively. This sounds like a situation that would have generated some friction over creative control between LeRoy and Hoover, but in reality the pair were good friends, LeRoy even at one point encouraging Hoover to run for President.

James Stewart as an undercover agent in “The FBI Story”

The film that emerged from this collaboration is a bland propaganda piece. Every time a character says something or something occurs that seems to suggest some issues within the agency, the narrative swerves right back into promoting their work “for the greater good,” to “make a difference.” Even if the FBI were less involved, it’s hard to imagine the film ending up that much better. The film spends two-and-a-half hours following Chip as he works through various cases, the danger and constant moving around the country placing a strain on his marriage to Lucy Ann (Vera Miles). LeRoy, who had been directing features steadily for both Warner Brothers and MGM since the dawn of talking pictures—ranging from social issue dramas like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to the iconic, elaborately-staged Pre-Code musical Gold Diggers of 1933—and he does inject some style into this thing, like a chilling cold open that sets up a mass murder committed by Jack Gilbert Graham before cutting to the patriotic credits sequence. The Graham case, like most of the crimes depicting in the movie, is based on a real-life incident that occurred only a few years before this movie’s release; Graham took out a life insurance policy on his mother and then planted a bomb in her luggage as she boarded a flight.

One of those real-life cases that The FBI Story devotes a lengthy chunk of its first hour to is the Osage Indian murders. Chip travels to Ute City, Oklahoma and goes undercover as a cattle buyer to ingratiate himself with the locals and try to track down who has been killed the Native American townspeople. Stewart’s Chip delivers a lot of exposition throughout the film in voiceover narration, and he does so again here, briefly setting up the case: pushed out of their ancestral land by the American government, the Osage were given a new plot of land to settle on (this part, for the record, is not made explicit in the movie). Oil was later discovered on that land, entitling each member of the tribe to collect royalties; by the 1920s, the Osage Nation was the richest people per capita in the entire world.

Surveying the aftermath of an attack against a wealthy Osage family in “The FBI Story”

Those who have read Killers of the Flower Moon will recognize a few of the real-life incidents and people in this movie, from Rita and Bill Smith and a home explosion to the body of a Native American man, found in his car, shot in the head. The Osage Indian murders are a historical event that, like many incidents involving minority groups, had been largely lost to time until Grann’s thoroughly-researched book brought it nationwide attention, so it is interesting to see the murders given time in a major Hollywood movie some 60 years before the publication of said book. But while the basic facts outlined in the film are true, The FBI Story is far from a comprehensive depiction. The anthology format of the movie wouldn’t have allowed for that anyway (and even with Scorsese’s version clocking in at nearly three-and-a-half hours, I harbor some doubts regarding what is and is not going to be properly conveyed on screen), but it only tells the FBI’s side of the story. The Native Americans are essentially portrayed as side characters in a conflict that technically revolves around them. Not only that, but it’s quite disparaging in its depiction of the Native Americans who Chip is technically there to help. It’s true that many members of the Osage tribe probably had more money than they knew what to do with; they owned multiple cars and homes, expensive clothes and jewelry, sent their children to pricey private schools, and employed servants. And it’s true that the American government passed a law in 1921 requiring that each tribe member have a guardian to help manage their money because they did not believe them competent enough to do so, especially as scammers moved in to try to take advantage of them. But The FBI Story heavily implies that there really was a lack of intelligence on the Native Americans’ part when it came to financial matters. In that aforementioned voiceover where Chip is setting up the case, he goes so far as to refer to the Native Americans’ spending habits as the “silly” part of the story. The camera pans from an Osage man sitting on his porch to his yard adorned with many toilets, which Chip attributes to an obsession with indoor plumbing. In the next shot, Chip describes that same man’s father, who loved telephones. This scene depicts him sitting in his living room that’s brimming with phones; he even has a young girl serving as a switchboard operator. Soon after, Chip credits the FBI’s involvement with the case as being because the killers murdered a Native American man on federal land; the implication is that perhaps the FBI wouldn’t have gotten involved otherwise. Throughout this segment, Stewart is at his most irascible and—dare I say it?—unlikeable, griping about his sordid surroundings so much that at one point he snaps at his wife that maybe “the Indians should stop being Indians.”

Very few Hollywood movies in the 1950s were actually progressive, even though they may have had that intention. In a brief segment of The FBI Story right before the Osage murders, Chip and his partner Sam Crandall (played by Murray Hamilton and reportedly based on real-life FBI agent Sam Cowley, who was killed in the 1934 shoot-out with Baby Face Nelson) are working in the South to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Similar to other films of the time, such as Warner Brothers’ searing 1951 drama Storm Warning, the Klan is portrayed as just a sort of vaguely misguided and violent group; their core beliefs aren’t articulated, and their anti-Black rhetoric isn’t merely sidestepped, but ignored entirely. When Chip and Sam, who are working undercover, whip off their hoods after trapping a group of KKK members inside the back of a truck, the scene as the energy of a Scooby-Doo episode; the KKK isn’t treated as an especially serious threat.

Grann’s book provides a clear-eyed view of the full scope of events, one that isn’t rooted in racism directed toward the victims of violence, hatred, and oppression, and I imagine Scorsese’s film will do the same, which is why I’d recommend checking out either of those before venturing into The FBI Story. But, armed with the proper context with which to view it, it’s a fascinating window in to how America was viewing and dissecting its own blood-soaked history in the 1950s—which is to say, by turning a blind eye to the ugly while exhibiting the country’s patriotic accomplishments with pride.

The FBI Story is available to rent on digital platforms.

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