The FBI Story
1959 theatrical poster
Directed byMervyn LeRoy
Screenplay byRichard L. Breen
John Twist
Based onThe FBI Story: A Report to the People
1956 book
by Don Whitehead
Produced byMervyn LeRoy
StarringJames Stewart
Vera Miles
Nick Adams
Narrated byJames Stewart
CinematographyJoseph F. Biroc
Edited byPhilip W. Anderson
Music byMax Steiner
Mervyn LeRoy Productions
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
September 24, 1959
Running time
149 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$3.5 million (est. US/ Canada rentals)[1]

The FBI Story is a 1959 American crime drama film starring James Stewart, and produced and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. The screenplay by Richard L. Breen and John Twist is based on a book by Don Whitehead.


John Michael ("Chip") Hardesty describes a murder, seen in a flashback. He narrates the incident in which Jack Gilbert Graham 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.[2] 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 comprising the remainder of the film.

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. Ballard thinks Hardesty's potential is being wasted by the FBI and wants him to start practicing law. They marry with this idea in mind. Hardesty is inspired to stay with the bureau after hearing a speech from its new director, J. Edgar Hoover. Lucy Ann reveals that she is pregnant; she persuades Hardesty to stay in the bureau for just 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,[a] 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,[b] with the typewriter that he used. 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, are excited by his prospect, but Lucy Ann does not like the idea at all.[4][5][6][7]

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 head to a nearby country store to call the Chicago office. When they get there, they find Baby Face Nelson holding two men hostage. Nelson opens fire, fatally wounding Crandall.

Hardesty recounts his involvement in the capture and deaths of numerous infamous mobsters of the day, including John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and Machine Gun Kelly. Kelly coined the popular term, "G-Men", during his arrest, when he shouted, "Don't shoot G-Men, don't shoot!". Because she fears for his life and is unable to persuade Chip to leave the bureau, Lucy decides to spend some time apart, and takes the children for an extended stay with her parents. While preparing an Easter egg hunt, Lucy calls her mother "a nag, a real nag". Lucy's mother sarcastically tells Lucy that Lucy's father is also "a nag". Realizing that she has been nagging her husband to leave his job, and that she and the children are miserable without him, Lucy and the children return home.

With the U.S. entry into World War II, "enemy aliens" (Americans of Japanese, German and Italian descent) are quickly rounded up by the FBI and sent to internment camps, to prevent possible espionage and collaboration with Axis powers. The ranks of the bureau are quickly doubled from about 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. Lucy is heartbroken, fearing he will be killed in war. Eventually, she understands that he, like many American boys, is willing to sacrifice his safety at home to serve his country.

Hardesty is sent to South America to relieve three agents whose identities have been compromised.[c] The third is revealed to be George; he has been deep in the jungle intercepting secret radio messages. Local authorities move in, forcing the FBI agents to destroy the equipment and flee. Back in the U.S., Hardesty and Lucy receive a telegram informing them that their son has been killed in the line of duty during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Although devastated, they comfort each other, praying that their son did not suffer.

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

Hardesty concludes his speech to the FBI. He is greeted by his family outside the building. 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 a co-producer of sorts. Hoover had LeRoy re-shoot several scenes he didn't think portrayed the FBI in an appropriate light, and played a pivotal role in the casting for the film. Hoover and LeRoy were personal friends.[8][9] Hoover had to approve every frame of the film and also had two special agents with LeRoy for the duration of filming.[10] Hoover himself appears briefly in the film.

Historical accuracy

The film changes some details regarding the airplane bombing by Jack Gilbert Graham, including the flight and the number of people killed. It also makes it appear that his sole motivation was money, the $37,500 life insurance policy; Graham's true motive was revenge for the way his mother had treated him as a small child.[citation needed]

Regarding Baby Face Nelson, he was hiding out with John Dillinger, but it was at the Little Bohemia Lodge, just outside Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, that the two agents were Special Agents J. C. Newman and W. Carter Baum (Baum is the agent killed in the shootout). Accompanying them was a local constable not shown in the film. Nelson was holding two hostages in a house and, when the car came up, Nelson, wanting to take the vehicle, rushed forward shouting for the occupants to get out, but then opened fire on the car shooting all three lawmen.[11]

In the case of the New York City clothes cleaner, it was, in actuality, a nickel, not a half-dollar, and took four years to unfold, not the short matter of days in the film. On June 22, 1953, a newspaper boy, collecting for the Brooklyn Eagle, was paid with a nickel that did not sound or feel right to him. It was not until a Soviet KGB agent, Reino Häyhänen, wanted to defect in May, 1957, that the FBI would be able to link the nickel to KGB agents, including Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher (aka Rudolph Ivanovich Abel) in the Hollow Nickel Case. The deciphered message in the nickel turned out to be worthless, a personal message to Häyhänen from the KGB in Moscow welcoming him to the U.S. and instructing him on getting set up).[12]

Comic book adaptation

See also


  1. ^ The real case was in Osage County, the Osage Indian murders, between 1921 and 1923.[3]
  2. ^ In real life a rancher, William King Hale
  3. ^ The CIA did not yet exist at the time, and U.S. wartime covert activities in Latin America were directed by the FBI's Special Intelligence Service.


  1. ^ "1959: Probable Domestic Take". Variety: 34. January 6, 1960.
  2. ^ "Famous Cases: Jack Gilbert Graham". FBI.
  3. ^ "A Byte Out of History: Murder and Mayhem in the Osage Hills". FBI.
  4. ^ "Famous Cases: Kansas City Massacre – Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd". FBI.
  5. ^ "Timeline of FBI History". FBI.
  6. ^ "FBI 100: The Kansas City Massacre". FBI. June 17, 2008.
  7. ^ "People & Events: The Rise of the FBI". – | "Primary Sources: Some Anti-Dillinger Laws". – American Experience. – PBS. – Retrieved: 2008-07-04
  8. ^ Gentry, Curt (2001). J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 384, 446–447, 708. ISBN 978-0-393-32128-9.
  9. ^ Doherty, Thomas Patrick (2005). Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 137–138. ISBN 978-0-231-12953-4.
  10. ^ Quirk, Lawrence J. (1997). James Stewart: Behind the Scenes of a Wonderful Life. New York: Hal Leonard Corporation. pp. 251–254. ISBN 978-1-55783-329-7.
  11. ^ "Famous Cases: "Baby Face" Nelson". FBI.
  12. ^ "Famous Cases: Rudolph Ivanovich Abel (Hollow Nickel Case)". FBI.
  13. ^ "Dell Four Color #1069". Grand Comics Database.
  14. ^ Dell Four Color #1069 at the Comic Book DB (archived from the original)