Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Movie Review: A Face in the Crowd

I recently sat down and watched a film with a particular relevance to the current news cycle. The film is A Face in the Crowd (1957) and its examination of the intersection where Celebrity, Madison Avenue, Big Business, and Politicians come to together in order to shape and hone the opinions of the American public is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago

In fact, A Face in the Crowd depicts this world better than any other picture that I have ever seen—no other films readily come to mind that deliver the brutally honest portrayal of the subject matter on display here. Pictures such as Sweet Smell of Success, Ace in the Hole, and Network are fine films that cover similar territory, but they pale in comparison to the gleeful cynicism brought to the screen by Andy Griffith, Budd Schulberg, and Elia Kazan.

A Face in the Crowd follows the meteoric rise of a bucolic troubadour named Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes (Griffith in his film debut) from Arkansas jailbird to a national television phenomenon. Lonesome Rhodes is discovered in a jail cell by a Pigget, Arkansas radio producer (played by Patricia Neal) and he soon has his own national television show with a very ambitious staff writer (as played by Walter Matthau).

A Face in the Crowd is an outstanding film—perhaps the best film that famed director Elia Kazan made in a career that also includes On the Waterfront (also written by Schulberg), East of Eden, and Splendor in the Grass. I am going to briefly describe two sequences in the film that illustrate the bravura filmmaking techniques employed by Kazan—they are so twisted and so well done that it is hard to believe that I was watching a film from 1957.

The first sequence is the phenomenal "Vitajex" montage featuring a series of shots from the commercials for Lonesome’s main sponsor—an energy supplement company that bases their advertisements on pointing out the Viagra-esque properties of the product. Kazan goes wild here with extreme close-ups of Rhodes’ mouth unleashing his obnoxious laugh; frantic cuts to sex kittens cooing around the "pill popping" Rhodes (who springs to life after swallowing this energy supplement); a blonde bombshell in bed with the industrial-sized bottle (a 10-year supply for her man!) on her nightstand; and a cartoon of a little pig that transforms into a big bad wolf after swallowing a Vitajex pill. I find it simply amazing that a mainstream American film from 1957 could have a sequence with enough energy and innuendo to rival anything cinema has thrown at audiences in the fifty years since its release.

Another powerful sequence occurs when Lonesome flies back to Arkansas from New York City to judge the Ms. Arkansas Drum Majorette competition. When all of the sixteen- and seventeen-year-old girls started squealing and screaming at Lonesome's arrival, it quickly becomes evident that something really twisted is going to happen. The look on Andy Griffith's face as he stares down a very young Lee Remick doing her baton twirling routine and gyrating to accompaniment of Rhodes' hit song "Mama Guitar"... Well, if Sheriff Andy Taylor had ever spotted "Lonesome" staring down a 17-year-old girl like that in Mayberry, I believe he would have started to carry a gun.

Although A Face in the Crowd was written by Budd Schulberg (the author of the unfilmmable What Makes Sammy Run?) and directed by the famed Elia Kazan, it is Andy Griffith's uncharacteristically vicious performance as Lonesome Rhodes that is the crucial element that makes the picture a truly great film.

I grew up watching Andy Griffith as Sheriff Taylor and I always thought Griffith was only capable of hitting a couple of notes as a performer. For example, his turn as a down-home simpleton in No Time for Sergeants (released a year after this film) is only slightly different than his work on The Andy Griffith Show. Griffith embodies a truly narcissistic brute in this film, the kind of mean bastard who also knows how to turn on the charm.

From what I understand, Griffith’s performance as Lonesome Rhodes carried over into his personal life and he vowed to never play such a vicious character again. It's a shame that he did not flex that sick and twisted acting muscle again, I think American cinema would have been all the better for it.

Submitted by Brandon Smith
Springville Road Regional Library

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