Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Film: A Face in the Crowd

125 minutes, B&W, 1957
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa

Andy Griffith. What do you think when you hear that name: Mayberry, Opie, Barnie, and Aunt Bea?; Matlock? If you're my age you might remember that he wrote and performed humorous monologues (What it Was, Was Football) and played Will Stockdale in No time for Sergeants. But between the confused country preacher watching a football game and the country bumpkin drafted into the Army, and the kindhearted, folksy, good humored, Andy Taylor and the folksy and cantankerous lawyer Matlock, Griffith demonstrated that he was also a serious actor.

In 1957, he delivered an outstanding dramatic performance as Lonesome Rhodes, a drifter whose rapid rise and fall in chronicled in A Face in the Crowd. Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, is discovered in a small town jail in Arkansas by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neil) who routinely visits the jail for personalities to feature on her radio program, A Face in the Crowd. His folksy talking and guitar playing make him an instant hit with the listeners who relate to him as one of their own and he gets a show. He speaks their language.

But underneath the "shucks, I'm just a country boy" demeanor is something darker. The article in The Encyclopedia of Arkansas (link below) describes Lonesome as feral and you see that in the wild animal reaction when Marcia wakes him up in the jail cell. His open mouthed braying laugh (see the image on the poster) takes on a sinister, animalistic tone as the film progresses.

Lonesome has an innate ability to manipulate people's emotions and actions. He is charismatic with an animal magnetism that makes him a powerful force. This gets him recognized and offered a television show in Memphis, Tennessee. From there he moves to New York to rejuvenate a bogus energy supplement and he gets a network television show, Lonsome Rhodes' Cracker Barrel.

Now in the big time, Lonesome's ambitions come to the surface. He is going to be a kingmaker, he's going to have the rich and famous coming to him, his endorsement is going to get candidates elected, no one will be willing to cross him. A banner in his penthouse reads There's nothing as trustworthy as the ordinary mind-of-the ordinary man. We the viewers know that Lonesome is anything but trustworthy or an ordinary man. Marcia knows he as to be stopped and exposes him to his listening audience. We last see him screaming her name from his penthouse, asking her to come back to him.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas makes several interesting points:
  • It (A Face in the Crowd) is significant for its prophetic theme of the cult of celebrity, the power of television, and the merging of entertainment and politics.
  • [It shows] the new medium of television's power to make or break a performer of politician.
  • It depicts] 1950s America as television replaces radio as the most powerful form of mass communication.

A Face in the Crowd has a scary significance today where the "merging of entertainment and politics" is very real and has become a substitute for genuine discourse and information.

Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and culture: A Face in the Crowd.
Senses of Cinema: a face in the Crowd by Thomas Beltzer
Wikipedia article on A Face in the Crowd