A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957)
With the carnival freak show known as the mid-term elections coming to a close, there is no better time to revisit A Face in the Crowd. The film’s story of a hillbilly whose television and radio exposure makes him a megalomaniacal and politically influential powder keg has lost none of its modern-day relevance. Released in 1957, it was remarkably prescient about the potentially dangerous intersection of the media and public discourse that remains an issue today. In fact, it may well have been quite ahead of its time in foreseeing this volatile societal cocktail, since the initial audience for the project upon its release to theaters was not very sizeable. Reuniting the On the Waterfront team of humanist screenwriter Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan, A Face in the Crowd neatly balances sharp social satire with the epic drama of a fall from grace worthy of Greek tragedy; especially since that fall occurs through arrogance, greed and the tendency to believe that one is near Godlike in stature. As such, the viewer is carried along by the saga of a sordid and scandalous individual life, while at the same time being reminded about the machine waiting behind that life—a machine only too happy to use and eventually abandon its co-conspirator.
Patricia Neal plays Marcia Jeffries, a roving Arkansas radio reporter taping a show from the county jail. There she is struck by the charisma of a drifter named Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith—yes, that Andy Griffith—in a chilling performance that is as non-Mayberry as you can get). Immediately nicknaming him “Lonesome,” Marcia becomes his manager and helps him gain local fame. His homespun advice (often privately peppered with disdain for the very hicks to whom he broadcasts) catches the attention of bigger and bigger entities, until Marcia is caught on a runaway train of co-dependency, enduring Lonesome’s ego, philandering and bids for ever more power. Walter Matthau has a sizable role as the radio writer who stands by Marcia even as she succumbs to Lonesome’s manipulative ways, and a radiant Lee Remick makes her screen debut as a rural teenager plucked up by the Id-driven Rhodes. Future TV-staple Anthony Franciosa plays the shark of an agent who brings Lonesome to the Big Apple, and the voices of several media players of the day (including Walter Winchell and Mike Wallace) are sprinkled throughout to lend further credibility to the idea of turning a jaundiced eye onto the television and radio industries.
Schulberg’s sharp and insightful script, adapted from his own short story The Arkansas Traveler, was indeed the product of much of his own research into the mindsets of advertising agencies and TV networks of the time. The film is fairly straightforward visually–all the better, in the end, to let a thematically complex and performance-driven project proceed of its own volition. Kazan’s camera holds on many shots, letting the action speak for itself, and allowing us to see the character dynamics and interplay in full flower. Griffith, who had only recently transitioned from the world of standup comedy, embodies Lonesome’s grinning snake oil salesman persona to a frightening degree. While he is the doomed anti-hero who drives the narrative, it is Patricia Neal’s Marcia who provides our moral center and keeps us emotionally engaged for the entire challenging ride. There is hardly a superlative that can do justice to the heartbreaking reality Neal brings to this character. To reveal too much of her story would be to throw in an unwelcome spoiler. Let’s just say that her vulnerability is palpable, and when she finally hits her breaking point, we break, too.