Classic Movie Review: A Face in the Crowd
By Clint Chirpich
February 4, 2016


Back in 1957, when A Face in the Crowd was released, television was still in its infancy, but director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Shulberg seemingly looked into the future and saw what kind of influence the new media device would become.

A Face in the Crowd tells the story of a drifter named Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, who gets plucked out of a small town jail to be part of a human interest radio program. From there, his infectious attitude and charm propel him to his own show on the station, where he develops a loyal listening audience. It's not long before he's summoned to the "big leagues" - first Nashville, Tennessee, and his own television program and then New York City and a national audience.

Rhodes is an interesting character. He's immediately likable, but with a devious and manipulative side that doesn't take long to take over. As played by Andy Griffith, Rhodes has a laid-back southern drawl and a wide, easy grin. As would anyone who grew up with repeats of The Andy Griffith show constantly airing, I had a hard time disassociating Griffith, the actor, from his character Andy Taylor, the lovable and supremely trustworthy sheriff of Mayberry. After seeing his turn as "Lonesome" Rhodes, I won't have that problem anymore.

Griffith does a decent job as Rhodes, but I just don't think he had the acting chops to quite pull off such a substantial role. There are a handful of scenes where his performance shines, but more often than not, he's just okay or worse. He goes over the top a little too often for my liking and I think it would have benefited the film greatly if Kazan had reined him in on those occasions. I understand that Rhodes is an over-the-top character, but the performance just didn't sit well with me.

Patricia Neal has the largest supporting role as Marcia Jeffries, the radio announcer and producer who discovers Rhodes and then travels with him, swinging between the dual roles of business associate and lover. Neal is quite good at times, and Marcia is another complicated character. She's proud of her work and wants her share of the revenue coming in, but also can't stand what Rhodes becomes. This is the first film I've seen Neal in, but she left an immediate impression on me. She was beautiful, strong, and confident in A Face in the Crowd, and I'd like to see more of her work. Her Oscar-winning role in Hud has been on my watch list for ages, and I think other films from her resume will be added shortly.

Walter Matthau, a man who appears to have always looked old, also has a sizable role as Mel Miller, a television screenwriter who immediately sees through Rhodes' shtick and tries to keep Marcia safe. He doesn't have a flamboyant personality like Rhodes, but Miller was still an interesting role and Matthau performed very well with his limited amount of screen time, thanks to his dry wit and barely hidden contempt of Rhodes and everything he stands for.

Lee Remick and Anthony Franciosa round out the main cast as a young woman who catches Rhodes' eye and his slimy agent, respectively. Both actors play the roles just fine, but I can't imagine that either of the performances will stick with me for long. They simply don't have a whole lot to do.

The main selling point of the film, for me at least, is the premise. It really is eerie how much Rhodes resembles some of the "stars" of today, like Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or - to a much lesser extent - Chris Matthews or Keith Olbermann. Rhodes uses the radio and television in a way to grow his brand and capitalize on his fans' ("followers" might describe them better) adoration of him. They will do pretty much whatever Rhodes tells them to do, from buying certain products to endorsing a particular nominee for President, and everything in between. That level of devotion to a person you don't really know anything about is scary. People who appear on television aren't telling you the whole truth about themselves. You don't know the motivations for their actions or opinions. You might as well take life advice from a character in a sitcom or film, as these guys - especially people like Trump, Limbaugh, or Beck - are just as scripted as any Hollywood fantasy.

The fact that Rhodes can rise to power so quickly is a bit absurd, but that's the satiric nature of the film. In real life, it generally takes years to build up a fan base so loyal that you can sway things in your favor. The old saying "absolute power corrupts absolutely" definitely applies to Rhodes. He's a product of his own megalomania and he doesn't care who or what gets in his way.

I do think this story could have been told in a more effective manner if the film had been 20 minutes or so shorter. It started to drag in places and I was occasionally checking the time, wondering when it was going to end. If it had been a bit shorter, I don't think this would have been the case.

The technical aspects of A Face in the Crowd are far less impressive than the premise and characters. Nothing about Kazan's direction or the cinematography (by Gayne Rescher and Harry Stradling) really stood out as positives. In fact, I think Kazan opted for far too many fade outs, which became distracting and repetitive after a while. The editing by Gene Milford and musical score by Tom Glazer were both fine, but nothing more.

A Face in the Crowd was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2008, for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". I can wholeheartedly agree with it meeting those first two standards, but not the third. Not all "classics" are created equally, of course, and I think this one is of a lesser quality - good, but not great.

Still, A Face in the Crowd was an interesting film and I'm happy to have seen it once. I can't imagine returning to it again anytime soon, though it would make an intriguing double feature with Sidney Lumet's Network, which covers some similar themes. I think I'd probably just watch the far superior Network on its own, though, and save myself two hours for something else.