“People are fascinating wherever you find them.” So says KGRK roving reporter Marcia Jeffries as she enters the Tomahawk County Jail, Arkansas, the night after the 4th of July celebrations in hope of finding some local colour to liven her radio show A Face in the Crowd; what she finds is perhaps predictable, a group of hungover men who have little intention of cooperating.
One of them, still sleeping, has a guitar: “He’s a mean one,” she is warned, and sure enough when she wakes him to present her proposition his response is immediately self-serving. “What do I get out of this?” is the question, but Marcia is crafty and captures a song by Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes for her listeners, and after his release from the cells she persuades him to reluctantly visit the studio for what become regular, if sometimes unpredictable, sessions.
That “Lonesome” Rhodes has talent is undeniable, and he is swiftly in demand, but what is also apparent to Marcia despite her attraction to him is that he cannot be controlled, something which the audiences love but which makes him troublesome to producers, sponsors and network controllers as his fame takes him to guest spots on television and eventually his own show.
His rise meteoric, “Lonesome” Rhodes burns those he leaves behind, his secret wife back in Arkansas, the teenage drum majorette with whom he replaces her, entering into the orbit of big business and politics as a Californian senator hoping to run for president attempts to cash in on his wide appeal, but all it means is that his eventual fall from grace will be equally unstoppable.
Released in 1957 and now available on Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection, A Face in the Crowd was written by Budd Schulberg based on his novella Your Arkansas Traveler, and directed by Elia Kazan, himself a former actor and co-founder of The Actor’s Studio whose career was littered with Academy Award nominations and wins.
The man who made stars of Marlon Brando and James Dean in A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront and East of Eden, Kazan pushed singer and stand-up comedian Andy Griffith hard in his major film debut as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, and A Face in the Crowd is a vehicle for his huge talent and energy, undeniable even when playing a character who is in equal parts fascinating and repulsive.
Opposite Griffith, The Day the Earth Stood Still‘s Patricia Neal is Marcia Jefferies, Frankenstein witnessing in horror the monster she has created, while The Odd Couple‘s Walter Matthau gives a subdued performance as Mel Miller, a writer who sees first-hand what Rhodes is becoming, wisely never trying to upstage the star of the film, and The Omen‘s Lee Remick has a small but important role as the beautiful young woman who captures Rhodes’ roving eye and breaks Marcia’s heart: “I knew you’d marry her just as a way of not marrying me.”
Both a film of its time and hugely prescient, A Face in the Crowd understands the power of the then relatively recent television uptake in households across America, “the greatest for mass persuasion in the history of the world,” critiquing the hold the media has over the population and the invidual and those who would use it to take control of them, as well as making clear how constructed that impression of reality is and how easily it can be destroyed.
The final scenes almost expressionist in their bold lighting and shadows and the raw emotions of the characters who witness the downfall of “the demagogue in denim,” A Face in the Crowd is perhaps not Citizen Kane but there are many parallels, and with its awareness of modern media the cautions it presents remain relevant today.
Accompanying the film on Criterion’s newly restored 4K edition are three special features totalling over an hour, new interviews with Kazan biographer Ron Briley who discusses the director’s controversial cooperation with the House Un-American Activities Committee, Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith who provides context on his career, and a 2005 documentary Facing the Past with contributions from Griffith, Neal, Schulberg and others.