Directed by Richard Attenborough. UK. 1992.

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Anthony Summers in his book, Official and Confidential, the Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, exposes how the homosexual and transvestite who led the FBI for half a century, may have been blackmailed by the Mafia. In the fifties Hoover directed his efforts against 'reds' , while organised crime got its feet under America's top table. 

The Hoover-Chaplin clash, the witch hunt and exile, becomes one of the longest threads in Attenborough's necessarily episodic story. David Robinson's tome does not even list Hoover in the index, and Chaplin's autobiography says very little about him, and these were the film's 'sources' ! 

With what was revealed, the film's politicisation of Chaplin's troubles is half hearted and stale. The precision of Robert Downey's impersonation of Chaplin has tipped the balance towards costume drama. 

So what else could be done with Chaplin's stories ? Two modern approaches for a Chaplin film must now be historical satire or a New Hollywood exploration of personal/social relationships. 

Before Dr Strangelove (1963), The Great Dictator (1940) was maybe the main satire of warmongering. Attenborough himself directed Oh What a Lovely War! (1969). Somebody yet must make some post Cold War fun with images that confront the gender bending aspects of the 'tramp' with Hoover in his 'Mary' persona as he helps launch the Cold War! 

His film cannot hide Attenborough's training during the 'age of Kane'. The film's Literary Editor/Anthony Hopkins creation, like Orson Welles' journalist is throughout looking for the 'Rosebud' behind the legendary figure. Questions from his scribbled list provoke Sir Charles' memories. 

This flashback structure originated in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) and also shapes Raging Bull (1980). All these films open with black and white close ups that 'establish'(?) the narrative voice. Attenborough and Martin Scorsese use dressing room mirrors here. The honesty of that voice is later put in doubt. Attenborough does it by Chaplin admitting to a phoney 'flashback'(?) of his creating the 'tramp'. Later there are speeded up 'Keystone' sequences that have to be taken in the same way. 

Both The Cabinet... and Raging... circle back to the opening images to make viewers compare final conclusions with their initial curiosity. With less sprawling histories they make the viewer puzzle such New Hollywood concerns as sexual obsessiveness and Scorsese questions brotherhood and status'. Attenborough does not/cannot bring us back to an opening puzzle but bails himself out of the story with climactic images from Chaplin's The Kid

There are still many puzzles film or maybe TV can present us on the Chaplin subject. English 'critics' have previous murder convictions and memories of the reviews should not put anyone off seeing the video.

Andrew Lydon
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Material Copyright © 2001 Nigel Watson