Friday, November 19, 2010
A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957): “Demagogue in Denim”
A Face in the Crowd reminds me both of All the King’s Men released a few years before and Hud a few years after this movie was made. If it’s not as good as either of these movies, this is in no way due to the quality of acting by the two leads. Patricia Neal, as in all of her roles, is tough and brittle at the same time. Andy Griffith may ham it up, but the sinister nature of his character is never masked by his easygoing charm.
“Lonesome” Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith) starts out as a bum who spends more time in County Jail than he ever does doing any work. Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) interviews Rhodes while in a small town Arkansas jail for a drunk and disorderly charge, and this interview broadcast upon the local radio station is widely admired by a certain segment in the community. Rhodes antics offend the sponsor and many of the leading citizens, but he develops a following among the “ordinary citizen.” Joey Kiely (Anthony Franciosa), a promoter and opportunist, meets Rhodes and arranges for him to do a show in New York City. Soon, “Lonesome” Larry Rhodes is famous. Eventually, Rhodes becomes an advisor for Senator Worthington Fuller (Marshall Neilan), a politician with Presidential ambitions. Rhodes converts Fuller from being a stiff and scholarly politician into a populist that espouses right wing causes.
Marcia watches the rise of Rhodes. At first she admires his nerve in his willingness to say and do almost anything, and his refusal to be tied down to any cause. She finds herself falling in love with him. Eventually, however, she discovers that refusal to commit to anything does not prevent Rhodes from using anyone to get what he wants. Rhodes breaks all promises and mocks people that previously had helped him out. Rhodes proposes marriage to Marcia before it is discovered that he still has not divorced his prior wife. He flies to Mexico to get a divorce, but arrives back married to someone named Betty Lou (Lee Remick). Not even a newspaperman friend, Mel Miller (Walter Mathau), who thoroughly understands Rhodes’ character, can give her any consolation.
In the end, Rhodes has his comeuppance. Joey Kiely has an affair with Betty Lou. Rhodes can only take it out on Betty Lou since Joey has business arrangements tied up so tightly that Rhodes can only make money with Joey’s assistance. And Rhodes finally slips up. Marcia, upon hearing Rhodes insulting the very common people he claims to represent, allows these comments to go out live on the airwaves. Joey, Senator Fuller and Rhodes’ many sponsors abandon him. Mel Miller gives Rhodes a preachy send-off while realizing that at some point Rhodes will be back. And at the end of the movie, with Rhodes being little more than a raving lunatic, “Lonesome” Larry Rhodes yells out the window for Marcia to come back (much like Stanley Kowalski yelling “Stella, Stella!” at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire).
Though the story is far fetched, this is a terrific movie. And for being fifty years old, it’s not so dated as one would suspect. Some people credit the cinematography (which even I feel is remarkable) for making the movie unique, but this only plays a small role. Again, it’s the acting. Griffith, without Paul Newman’s looks, comes close to being a precursor to Newman in Hud. Neal, of course, played a similar role that she plays here in Hud. Both of them project characters that have a great deal more below the surface than any dialogue could ever bring across. With one exception, everyone else in the cast was excellent and never got in the way of the two leads. I was disappointed in Walter Mathau. He comes across as much too righteous and forgettable, and he always seems to be pontificating at the wrong time. Fortunately, Mathau’s a minor distraction.
The real weaknesses in this movie concern the directing of Elia Kazan and the screenplay by Bud Schulberg, the two who had previously teamed up together in On the Waterfront. Elia Kazan is marvelous in bringing out the best in the performers on the screen, but I’ve never felt his movies hold together that well unless the movie has a great storyline behind it. Schulberg does not deliver that great storyline here. Just as in On the Waterfront, Schulberg created a script to fit the political leanings of its director. On the Waterfront gave justification to Kazan’s testifying in front of the McCarthy’ hearings. (Schulberg, by the way also testified.) And A Face in the Crowd smacks of Kazan’s elitism. The movie projects the message that the average man is more swayed by populist rhetoric than any reasoned consensus.
Kazan claimed that the reason he testified in front of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was because of his disillusionment with “Stalinist” Russia. He stated he had a history of supporting liberal causes, and even after his testimony he maintained that he held onto those liberal beliefs. Never once did he ever suggest that he caved into pressure to testify for the Committee. The Soviet menace, he maintained, was more detrimental to the liberal beliefs of his colleagues than the HUAC. Not surprisingly, his contemporaries never really believed him, and some are not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt to this day. Despite what Kazan said, we can only guess at the reasons for why he testified because Kazan never educated anyone further. Kazan apparently was a difficult man to know. Many actors and writers in Hollywood and elsewhere probably never even knew exactly what Kazan believed. Like “Lonesome” Larry Rhodes, Kazan probably espoused anything that was most convenient to his career. He did leave everyone in doubt just enough to allow the Academy Award Committee in the 1990s, shortly before Kazan died, to present him an honorary Oscar – an Oscar that many in Hollywood protested.
To be fair, there’s no denying that Kazan did have talent. Two movies that he directed, A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden starring James Dean, I consider to be a couple of the greatest movies ever filmed. Even On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd are still being watched because these films project worthwhile entertainment. Next to John Huston, he may be the greatest movie director in Hollywood history. It’s too bad it is so difficult to now watch one of his movies without thinking about how he continued to get work in the film industry while others were completely left out.
Finally, I wish A Face in the Crowd had remained a character study of an unsavory sort of person rather than turn into a cultural indictment. The character played by Andy Griffith projecting a type of unsavory person that exists in America provided us with greater insight than any of the platitudes uttered in the last fifteen minutes of the movie. Everyone knows someone that resembles “Lonesome” Larry Rhodes. Still, despite the stumbling climax, this 125-minute movie moves quickly, and can be both humorous and disconcerting to the viewer.
April 9, 2008
© Robert S. Miller 2008