FBI Story, The (1959): Mervyn Leroy’s Patriotic Tribute, Starring Jimmy Stewart, Vera Miles, Nick Adams

In The FBI Story, an unabashedly glorified salute to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Jimmy Stewart portrays one of J. Edgar Hoover’s finest man, Agent Chip Hardesty, whose glorious career has spanned over three decades, from 1924 to the late 1950s.

Based on two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Don Whitehead’s bestseller, and tautly directed by Mervyn LeRoy, the film describes how he tangles with everything from the Ku Klux Klan to a bomber that commits mass murder for insurance money.

Hardesty’s fiercest exploits come in the 1930s when he stares down a gun barrel at Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, Ma Barker, and John Dillinger.

John Michael (“Chip”) Hardesty (Stewart) describes a murder, seen in a flashback. He then narrates the incident in which Jack Gilbert Graham (Nick Adams) took out life insurance on his mother and planted a bomb in her luggage for a flight she was taking from Denver, Colorado in 1955. Hardesty is shown delivering a lecture to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He begins to recount his history as an agent of the bureau, which is shown as a series of flashbacks.

In May 1924, Hardesty was working as a government clerk for the nascent FBI in Knoxville, Tennessee. He proposes to his sweetheart, a librarian named Lucy Ann Ballard (Vera Miles). Ballard thinks Hardesty’s potential is being wasted by the FBI and wants him to start practicing law.

However, Hardesty is inspired to stay with the bureau after hearing a speech from its new director, J. Edgar Hoover. Lucy Ann reveals, who is pregnant, permits Hardesty to stay in the bureau for a preliminary year.

Hardesty is sent to the South to investigate the Ku Klux Klan. He is moved around until he is sent to Ute City, Wade County, Oklahoma to investigate a series of murders of Native Americans who had oil-rich mineral land and rights. The FBI was compelled to investigate after one of the murders was committed on federal government land.

The FBI forensics laboratory ties the doctored wills and life insurance policies of the murder victims to a local banker, Dwight McCutcheon (Fay Roope), based on the typewriter he had used.

Meanwhile, Lucy Ann, already the mother of three, suffers a miscarriage around this time.

On June 17, 1933, three FBI agents were escorting Frank “Jelly” Nash from a train to a car outside the Union Station in Kansas City when they were ambushed and killed. This event changed the FBI; a year later, Congress gave the FBI statutory authority to carry guns and make arrests. Hardesty and his friend Sam Crandall (Murray Hamilton) are excited by his prospect, but Lucy Ann does not like the idea at all.

After receiving a tip, Hardesty and Crandall head to Spider Lake, Wisconsin, on April 22, 1934, but barking dogs alert the gangsters and they scatter. The agents then head to a country store to call the Chicago office. While there, they find Baby Face Nelson (William Phipps) holding two men hostage. Nelson opens fire, fatally wounding Crandall.

Hardesty then recounts his involvement in the capture and/or deaths of numerous infamous mobsters, including John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and Machine Gun Kelly.

Unable to get Chip to leave the bureau, Lucy decides to leave their marriage and take the children. They move into her parents’ home. While preparing an Easter egg hunt, Lucy ironically calls her mother “a nag, a real nag.” Later, Lucy’s mother sarcastically tells Lucy that Lucy’s father is also “a nag.” Realizing what she is, Lucy decides to return home and bring back Chip’s children.

When the U.S. enters into World War II, “enemy aliens” (Americans of Japanese, German, and Italian descent) are rounded up by the FBI and sent to internment camps to prevent possible espionage.

The bureau’s ranks are doubled from 2,500 to more than 5,000 agents. One of those aspiring new agents is the deceased Sam’s son George who is worried that he will never live up to his father’s reputation; a romance buds between him and Hardesty’s oldest daughter.

Hardesty’s only son announces his enlistment in the U.S. Marine Corps, despite Lucy’s objections.

Hardesty is sent to South America to relieve 3 agents whose identities have been compromised. The third is revealed to be George; he has been in the jungle intercepting secret radio messages. Local authorities move in, forcing the FBI agents to destroy the equipment.

Back in the U.S., Hardesty and Lucy receive a telegram informing them of their son’s death in the line of duty during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

The final case stems from NY clothes cleaner finding a hollow half-dollar with microfilm inside. The FBI tracks the owner of the clothing, leading to his capture and that of an associate.

After concluding his speech to the FBI. Hardest is greeted by his family; he now has a grandson. The family drives away, passing by historic D.C. landmarks.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation had great influence over the production, with J. Edgar Hoover acting as co-producer of sorts. Hoover had LeRoy re-shoot scenes he didn’t think portrayed the FBI in an appropriate light. He also played a pivotal role in the casting for the film. Hoover had to approve every frame of the film and also had two agents with LeRoy on the set. Hoover himself appears briefly in the film.

James Stewart as John Michael “Chip” Hardesty
Vera Miles as Lucy Ann Hardesty
Murray Hamilton as Sam Crandall
Larry Pennell as George Crandall
Nick Adams as John Gilbert ‘Jack’ Graham
Diane Jergens as Jennie Hardesty
Jean Willes as Anna Sage
Joyce Taylor as Anne Hardesty
Victor Millan as Mario
J. Edgar Hoover as Himself
Special Agent Lewis Gene Libby as unnamed FBI agent.