Seen: In 35mm at the Somerville Theatre. Part of their Centennial Series.
When fresh-faced small-town radio personality Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) interviews a disheveled crooner in an Arkansas holding cell, she is convinced she’s discovered a new star. Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith) is a charismatic-beyond-belief hooligan with a ratty guitar and a drinking problem, and the magical ability to get people to listen to him. Marcia gives him a radio show, and from there his career soars higher than anyone could have imagined, leading to multiple nationally-televised talk shows that primarily involve Lonesome effortlessly spewing his own brand of folk wisdom and political commentary. At the start he uses his newfound influence for good, or at least good-natured fun, sending packs of dogs to befuddle a power-hungry sheriff and brazenly bringing a recently-homeless black woman onscreen so he can call for donations for her new house. But as the years pass, he gains more and more pull with authority figures, eventually angling to move a specific candidate into the White House for him to control, and he becomes ever-more infatuated with the fabricated image of Lonesome Rhodes. Marcia sticks with him through it all, managing behind the scenes, but she gradually realizes the monster she’s created has to be stopped before the whole operation collapses in on itself.
I’m honestly not even sure where to start, except to say that A Face in the Crowd is amazing. It is one of the most prescient films I’ve seen, anticipating ways that mass media would alter American society while also predicting general political trends. Parallels to pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Glen Beck are a snap to draw. Lonesome’s astonishing rise to the top is married to his manipulative aw-shucks demeanor and pointed maneuvering- we never know the man before he has a microphone, and so the line between his character and his persona is forever blurred. Marcia blames herself for encouraging him, but for all we know this was fated, unavoidable. I love how subtly scary this movie is, how many shots of Lonesome seemed framed to reveal his devious eye and hungry mouth as his maniacal laugh boomed out over the scene transitions. Griffith is funny, confident, and legitimately terrifying in the role, embodying this supposedly “regular Joe” who is given the opportunity to become larger than life, and takes full advantage of it. Great power, great responsibility, etc- this guy didn’t have any Uncle Ben, that’s for sure.
Somerville projectionist David Kornfeld introduced the film, and pointed out how open the film is about sex, which is surprising for a movie from 1957. It is indeed pretty frank. No boobs or anything (damn!) but very clear sexual interludes take place, many outside the bonds of matrimony (gasp!). Mostly I thought it was neat that Marcia seemed fairly open-minded about sex- like she didn’t condemn Lonesome for his affairs, and didn’t assume love and marriage must follow when she herself slept with him. Of course I myself was rooting for Walter Matthau’s ho-hum tv writer, who rightly fell in love with the whip-smart, quick-to-smile Marcia almost immediately. Plus you know his melodramatic eloquence will pay off eventually. And it really does.
This movie floored me. I don’t know what else I can say. It is at times shocking and unsettling, at others satirically funny and casually familiar. Its characters all twist and squirm within this self-sustaining media machine, with everyone nigh-unrecognizable to who they were when introduced. Elia Kazan’s dramatic camerawork and blocking underscores what is actually an utterly realistic narrative, making it all the more impressive to a modern-day viewer like myself, who feels the predictions of 1957 easily applying to today’s fuckery.
Pair This Movie With: This is an obvious precursor to Network, but honestly I think this is much better and more relevant to today. There are also some parallels to Citizen Kane. BUT I’m going to go a little kookier and suggest Little Shop of Horrors, because it also involves a dude who becomes power-hungry after semi-accidentally making it big. But with more singing. And also more homicide.by