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‘MLK/FBI’ Forbids Us to Relax

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In the late nineteen-fifties, James Stewart was on a roll. “Vertigo” came out in 1958, as did the sly and funny “Bell, Book and Candle,” followed by “Anatomy of a Murder,” in 1959. A decorated veteran and a loyal Republican, Stewart seemed at once trusty and perplexed—still a straight arrow, but no longer sure, in the postwar world, of where, exactly, he was aimed.

Yet to come was “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), in which he and John Wayne duke it out for the values of the Old West. Was it, perhaps, Stewart’s wish to prove himself steadfast, in spite of change, that impelled him to star in “The FBI Story” (1959)? It runs two and a half hours, growls at irony and doubt, and features a cameo by J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Bureau from 1924 to 1972. Stewart plays a longtime G-man, whose creed is nicely distilled in this report on a current suspect:

On Sunday morning he left the house. He couldn’t be going to work. Since he was a Communist, we knew he wasn’t going to church.

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