A Celluloid History of the FBI

While J. Edgar Hoover was alive, the FBI was seldom portrayed on film in terms less than uxoriously flattering. After Hoover’s passing, the image began to crumble.

Here are some main stops in the film iconography of the FBI:

“G-Men” (1935). Warner Bros. gangster movie par excellence. Hoover liked this movie and let Warners put the Justice Department’s seal on it for the 1949 re-release.

“Crime Does Not Pay” (1935-45) and “Persons in Hiding” (1939-40). First: MGM’s long-running “true life” series on law-enforcement agencies. The second: taken from a book allegedly written by Hoover. The movie’s FBI image is codified: clean-limbed, impeccable, tough, incorruptible, suit-and-tied--and sexless.


“The House on 2nd Street” (1945) and “The Street With No Name” (1948). Both approved by Hoover. In both, an older, seasoned pro (Lloyd Nolan) guides a young, handsome fellow agent through a criminal underworld of Nazis or bank robbers.

“I Was a Communist for the FBI” (1951), “Man on a String” (1960), “Big Jim McLain” (1952), “I Married a Communist” (1949). ‘50s Commie-busting, with and without the FBI. Also: the more fanciful Red-bashing of two-fisted Duke Wayne in “Big Jim McLain” and ex-Commie Bob Ryan in “I Married a Communist.”

“FBI Girl” (1951). Like the guys, she’s terse, she’s trim, hot on the track of a killer.

“FBI Story” (1959). Jimmy Stewart plays the quintessential FBI working-class stiff.


“Dillinger” (1973) and “The Lady in Red” (1979). Right- and left-wing revisionist versions of the John Dillinger story.

“Dog Day Afternoon” (1974). The ultimate post-Hoover switcheroo: the old iconography twisted inside out, about a botched bank robbery, engineered by two inept but sympathetic bumblers. The Feds show up. James Broderick. He’s emotionless, ice cold . . . mean as hell.

“The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover” (1977). The last word in FBI revisionism, from Larry Cohen--who shows us the sleaziest agency conceivable.

“The House on Carroll Street” (1988). A “reconciliation” saga. The villain in this ‘50s-set Cold War thriller-romance is a Roy Cohn-Richard Nixon type. The hero is an apple-cheeked FBI agent (Jeff Daniels).