A Face in the Crowd
d. Elia Kazan (1957)
The Criterion Collection

I had never seen Elia Kazan’s 1957 film, A Face in the Crowd, until receiving the new Criterion Collection release. I didn’t know what to expect. I was shocked! First off, here we have Andy Griffith, whom I’ve always only known from his lovable television roles, playing an absolutely unhinged, repulsive drifter who discovers his matter-of-fact bluntness appeals to an audience who might not have even known they were seeking refreshing “honesty” in the media consumption. Second, and most astoundingly, I was shocked at how this 1957 film is a clear distillation of our media obsessed moguls and politicians who learn how to manipulate the crowd by “going rogue” in order to bolster their numbers and feed their ego. Weren’t the 1950s supposed to be America’s golden years? It’s been a long time since I believed that. But I still didn’t expect this gut punch.

The film begins in a rural Arkansas jail. Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) goes there to find and hopefully record an interesting interview for the local radio show. No one really wants to speak. Over in the corner is a lump that springs up dangerously when Marcia pokes it. This is Andy Griffith’s Larry Rhodes, a bundle of unpredictable energy from the beginning.

Larry ultimately agrees to talk and even sing if it will get him out of jail quicker. He’s unkempt, uncouth, and plain rude — maybe even dangerous — but for whatever reason the listeners take to him. As he speaks they feel he speaks for and to them. He even has the audacity to insult the sponsor, a mattress company, that pulls its advertisements. And then when they see that Rhodes’ irreverence is actually good for sales, they go back looking for more.

Rhodes may look like just an honest, down-to-earth, “brutally honest” son of America, but that flash in his eye is pure intelligence, an intelligence he’s always used to look out for himself. If the mattress company comes looking for him, he’ll be happy to do more.

Rhodes pathway doesn’t stop at the radio. Soon he finds himself on television with a wider audience who loves “Lonesome” Rhodes.

I’m not an entertainer. I’m an influencer, a wielder of opinion, a force . . . a force!

Even though it’s growing, Rhodes’ ego was already a sizable one. He never thought he was speaking to his equals. He knows how to act and he knows how to fool. He likes to wield his opinion, any opinion, and see how folks scurry.

If this is the Lonesome Rhodes (and Andy Griffith) you think you’re seeing:

You should look at the frenzied Rhodes shown on the Criterion cover above. That devil is the true character. That he can pass himself off as the “ordinary” man is one thing in his diabolical skill set.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler — but it might be, so be careful here — to say that this 1950s film, as required by code, presents Lonesome Rhodes with his comeuppance. The audience, hearing Rhodes’ offensive comments caught on an open microphone, punishes him severely. This is where the film feels inauthentic today. Mel Miller (Walter Mathau) tells Marcia that it’s okay to have regrets because “we were all taken in.” But she should keep her chin up because, “When we get wise to him, that’s our strength. We get wise to him.” That’s so idealistic it’s cute. We live in a world where Lonesome Rhodes still gets on the air and says whatever he wants, and when people hear his private talk it does nothing to diminish his influence. It might even create more adherents.

Still, A Face in the Crowd is a surprising film well worth watching for a number of reasons.

And this Criterion Collection release is worth snagging. I watched the film first, but knowing that this film was made after Elia Kazan’s legacy diminishing cooperation with HUAC made me curious to know more about where the film came from. Consequently, I found the interview with Ron Briley, who wrote The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan, invaluable. There are several other features focused on the production and on Griffith, but Briley’s interview hit the spot perfectly. I cannot recommend this edition enough.

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