Everyone so often, you watch a film from classic Hollywood that is truly staggering in its ability to speak to the present. Such is the case with Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd.
The film focuses largely on two characters, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) and Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith). When Marcia discovers Lonesome and his phenomenal music talent, she gets him a spot at the radio station, where he quickly becomes immensely popular and influential. She thus sets in motion a chain of events that sees Lonesome grow ever more powerful, until he stands at the pinnacle of political power. However, as it turns out, his fall ends up being as precipitous as his rise The film ends with him screaming for Marcia to return, as she drives away with the better man, Mel (Walter Matthau).
Thematically, of course, the film expresses a profound skepticism (I might even go so far as to say hostility) to the everyday Americans that Lonesome appeals to with such panache. These are, as the film takes pains to depict, housewives and workers of all sorts, and their essential gullibility–they become almost like the rats to Lonesome’s Pied Paper–is truly staggering. Of course, this animosity toward any sort of populism shouldn’t surprise us, given Kazan’s own avowed hostility toward communism, but it is still rather shocking how dismissive the film is of ordinary citizens.
Cinematographically, A Face in the Crowd is trademark Kazan, particularly in its gritty realism and sometimes disconcerting camera work. There are times when it is almost possible to forget that one is watching a drama film and not a documentary, and this gives the film a crackling energy and a visceral intensity that underscores the disturbing nature of its narrative (which is all the more disturbing given the world we now inhabit).
What really makes the film, however, is Andy Griffith’s demented turn as Lonesome Rhodes. Griffith takes no prisoners in his performance, dialing up the intensity to almost unbearable proportions. It is not, to put it mildly, a subtle performance, but it is decidedly effective. Sometimes, the camera manages to capture a particularly manic glint in his eyes and, whether it is a trick of the light, Griffith’s command of his own performance, or some combination of the two, it is truly frightening to behold. It’s especially disconcerting given that Griffith would use that folksy charm to very different ends with his persona of Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show and as Matlock decades later. As Lonesome, however, he reveals not only his own incredible talents as an actor, but also exposes the uncomfortable truth that even the most seemingly authentic of people can hide a truly terrible darkness within.
Props also go to Patricia Neal, who somehow manages to grab at least a little of the spotlight for herself. I’ve always found Neal to be a very charming and underrated actress. In this film, she possesses the same sort of folksy charm as Lonesome, but in her it is genuine, and she ultimately comes to serve as the moral conscience of the film. Though she loves Lonesome, she ultimately comes to know him for what he is and it is she, more than anyone, who brings about his downfall when she manipulates the sound system so that Lonesome’s brutal dismissal of his followers is broadcast all over the country.
Much as I enjoyed the film, I do tend to agree with Bosley Crowther, who suggested that Griffith’s performance tended to overwhelm both the other characters and the story. The film doesn’t really give us enough evidence to explain why it is that Lonesome has such an irresistible influence on the people of the country. For that matter, his fall reads as just a little too easy, a little too abrupt to really land.
In an era in which populism and demagoguery have become ever more common–and ever more violent–A Face in the Crowd serves as a disturbing cautionary tale. After all, we live in a world where a man very much like Lonesome–right down to the lechery and the penchant for young women–now holds the highest office in the land. And he is just as Lonesome does, our very own egomaniacal huckster holds his own followers in contempt. The only difference is that we have yet to see him tumble from his perch into well-deserved political oblivion.
One can only hope that, in this case at least, life really will imitate art.