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STUDIO: Warner Brothers
MSRP: $19.97 RATED: NR
RUNNING TIME: 125 Minutes
• Facing the Past
• Original Theatrical Trailer
(This is part of Warner’s fantastic Controversial Classics Collection. BUY IT!)
Occasionally, sitting in front of the TV really pays off. A couple years back my bonus came when I dropped onto the couch just as A Face In The Crowd was starting. I’ve never been the same. It convinced me that Andy Griffith wasted his career, and that the most prophetic films are destined to be ignored in their lifetime.
The script by Budd Schulberg came alive under Elia Kazan’s direction. Both men had been caught up in McCarthyism, and named names for the anti-Communist efforts of the House Un-American Activities committee. But McCarthy was undone by televised hearings in 1954, and this film is very much a reaction to his downfall.
Now that it’s on DVD, Elia Kazan’s cautionary tale is a must-have. It’s as dark and nasty as an execution at midnight, with such prescient media commentary that I’m amazed every time I see it. In addition to providing a fantastic character story, it indicts the collusion of politics and entertainment with almost rabid fervor.
Andy Griffith plays Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes. With a put-on country manner and grinning lack of social decorum, he’s plucked from jail to become an instant media sensation. The beaming Patricia Neal does the plucking. She’s Marcia Jeffries, a female John Lomax* roaming the roads of Arkansas, reel to reel in tow, searching for Great American Songs.
I’m Andy Griffith, bitch!
Rhodes is a hit on radio, where he spins tales of his childhood in Riddle, AK and expresses sympathy for the plight of the American housewife. Regional television is next — he seemingly invents the telethon in Memphis — and then Lonesome’s larger than life personality invades the national airwaves.
His stories are all fabrications, though, and so is the kindly manner and sympathetic personality. Rhodes may be generous now and then, but only when it’ll get him somewhere. I might not call Lonesome a con man, but he knows exactly how to play an audience. He’s also a drunk and an unrepentant womanizer. Those don’t have to be fatal flaws. Pride, on the other hand, always is. Lonesome Rhodes has that in spades.
Things get out of control, in a way that both precedes and outclasses the glowering satire of guys like Chuck Palahniuk. Rhodes skewers the advertising scripts he’s given to drawl on-air, but soon courts a placebo pep-pill company in an amazing sequence gilded with sly sexual innuendo. Then he graduates to politics, an occupation for which his aw-shucks theatrics are particularly suited.
Enthusiasm in the room dimmed considerably when participants were informed that ‘cockfighting’ required roosters.
It goes without saying that watching Griffith play this increasingly servile yet arrogant huckster is a revelation. The role goes against every notion that I’ve had of the actor. And he’s not alone. Patricial Neal is fantastic, aging onscreen through sheer performance. A cynical Walter Matthau and 17 year old Lee Remick (as a Lolita majorette) both provide great performances. Tony Fransciosa kills in his first role as a sleazy assistant turned agent. In short, Griffith has everything he needs to fuel a tour de force turn, and he eats it up.
I guarantee you won’t once think of Matlock or Mayberry. When Griffith opens his mouth wide to howl or laugh or sing, you can feel Lonesome’s fire and intensity. Plenty of movies tell you that the male lead has no trouble getting laid, but as Lonesome, Griffith is a goddamn sex machine. It’s all because of the intelligence thinly concealed behind his eyes; you just know there’s a lot more going on than he lets slip.
When the crime scene guys saw the dogeared ad for Organ Grinder Escorts, they knew the Monkey Hustlers had stuck again.
This was Griffith’s first feature role, and he evidently dug in deep, drinking and behaving like Lonesome on and off set. The intensity of his involvement scared Griffith, and he turned his back on similar material once the film was finished. If he’d possessed the courage to move forward in this direction, I could imagine him being placed in the pantheon of our most powerful actors.
Beyond that performance, what’s astounding is the political tone of the film. It’s a striking mirror of current cynicism, with references to sound bites and a wise appreciation of television as the new public arena. All this before the Nixon/Kennedy debates, before Watergate. It’s cold comfort to see that politics never change, but the truly cynical audience will be heartened to know that the good old days were actually not.
For Carnege Hall afterparties, the Old Men’s Porno Room was the place to be.
Of course, no one saw A Face In The Crowd in 1957. Audiences weren’t willing to buy into Schulberg and Kazan’s media cynicism — or realism, depending on how you look at it. Maybe people still wanted to believe that stunts like Nixon’s ‘checkers speech’ were something other than calculated ploys. The televised Nixon/Kennedy debates were in the future, and until then, television would be the invisible aide to politics.
Whether seen by five people of five million, the movie is still a masterpiece. It’s got the media bite of Network and the pure American pathos of Sunset Blvd. A Face In The Crowd deserves an immediate revival.
…and when I pop a ‘Vitajex’, my apparatus straightens itself out in a jiffy!
* (John Lomax extensively documented and recorded folk tales and songs from around 1910 until his death in 1948. Beginning in the ’30s, John and his son Alan traveled extensively though the country, concentrating on the South and Southwest, creating a gigantic archive of songs and stories that would otherwise be completely lost. They made the first recordings of Leadbelly in a Louisiana prison in 1933. Blues and folk songs are the roots of American music, and the recording and proliferation of that music wouldn’t have happened in the same way without Lomax.)
9.5 out of 10
The film hasn’t been restored, and there’s some evidence of age on the source material now and again, but this is generally a fantastic transfer. It’s rich with deep shadows and smooth grays. Credit the original cinematography, which treats this story as seriously as Kazan and Griffith do.
8 out of 10
This is a good sound mix, which occasionally goes into intentional overdrive when moments of media frenzy pop up. But it works extremely well. There are a few thick accents in the film (not least of which is often Griffith’s) and all the dialogue is clear as sin.
8 out of 10
Facing the Past – The half-hour feature begins by outlining the Communist controversies of the ’40s, setting the stage for Kazan and Schulberg’s involvement. Soon enough, it gets down to business and talks about the making of the film. I’d much prefer a decent commentary with Griffith and Schulberg, but this is a distant, if acceptable second. And if you’ve ever wanted to hear an 80-year old Andy Griffith say ‘fuck her,’ this is the place.
I told those sumbitches that for me to do another season, they had to give Matlock laser eyes!
Original Trailer – This ad introduces Andy Griffith to most audiences, and even implies that he’s a newcomer on the level of Brando. And dammit, based on this film it’s totally true. Otherwise, a relatively unremarkable trailer, though.
5 out of 10
I definitely don’t love this artwork, but it’s what originally promoted the film, so at least they’ve gone with a legit, classic image. But this was one time when I’d sorta like to see a big head, since Griffith fans might actually be conned into picking this up.
6.5 out of 10
Overall: 9 out of 10