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.