01 June 2007

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Directed by: Elia Kazan
Written by: Budd Schulberg

Grade: A

Why A Face in the Crowd isn't more popular, let alone universally revered, is anybody's guess; a good twenty years before Network, Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg—who'd previously teamed up for one of the masterpieces of American cinema, On the Waterfront—tackled the dangerous manipulative power of television in their story of a drunken hobo, "Lonesome" Rhodes, turned celebrity. Whereas much of Network hasn't aged well, A Face in the Crowd, which even predates the famous Nixon-Kennedy debates, feels more relevant than ever, as its prescient commentary on television's effect on America's culture—and, most notably, its political sphere—has proven true ten times over in the decades since it was made.

In the first scene, Marcia (Patricia Neal), host of a smalltown radio programme called "A Face in the Crowd", enters an Arkansas jail to gather some soundbites for her show. (The Southern atmosphere, in all its sweaty, crumbling, filthy grit is rendered as palpably as it was in Kazan's previous effort, Baby Doll—another heck of a film.) After the inmates don't prove too accommodating to Miss Marcia, the sheriff suggests she try the drunk with the guitar, Rhodes, that they picked up last night. Who is that animal, curled up on his back in the corner—Marlon Brando? James Dean? No, it's none other than Andy Griffith! (My how far Sheriff Andy Taylor has fallen, one thinks watching the film now, as the jailer has become the jailed.) From that moment on, Griffith, rarely off-screen again, tears through the film in a honest-to-goodness tour-de-force, roaring through every scene, his enthusiasm only stopping short at defying gravity and dancing on the ceiling. "I put my whole self into everything I do," Lonesome boasts early on, mirroring Griffith's commitment to his screen debut—and Kazan doesn't have a reputation for being a masterful actor's director for nothing. In a soiled t-shirt, and with the nickname "Lonesome" bestowed on him by Marica, Rhodes proves an instant radio smash, singing improvised songs and telling stories with an irrepressible, avuncular, Southern-bumpkin charm. He endears himself to the audience right away, even giving an impassioned speech on the plights of the typically overworked housewife that attracts their gratitude as they scrub the scum out of the oven at home; later, he wins over the black folk in a similar fashion, by putting the TV station's cleaning lady on his show. (Kazan shows Rhodes' effect on the American people by cleverly cutting to random families at home expressing their admiration for the man on the air.) Such an immediate success, he's given his own radio show, which leads to a television show in Memphis, and eventually a nationally syndicated program; Lonesome completes the transformation from country hoodlum to New York suit in no time at all, with all the changes it would seem to imply. "You're getting to be all the things you used to harpoon," Marcia tells him accusatorily, and the story arc is vaguely reminiscent of another fictional fella from below the Mason-Dixon, Willie Stark.

Rhodes' persona is a fraud; he's simply a performer with an invented backstory, which, as an unlikely shrewd businessman, he uses to rise to prominence, aided by the medium perfectly suited to him—television. "I'm sure glad to leave that dump," he casually tells Marcia, to her surprise, on their way to Memphis, giving the nondiegetic audience their first look at the real man behind the facade, the true personality that'll ultimately be his undoing. But, for a time at least, the manipulative power of the television medium gives Rhodes something bigger than mere popularity; it gives him real sway and influence over hypnotized Americans—it makes him a "force"—which he uses first to hock the sponsor's cheap pills and later to affect the American political process, agreeing to help a reactionary, right-wing Senator become the next President of the United States. A Face in the Crowd unabashedly confronts the way that television has reduced politicians, previously "statesmen", into saleable products. As one character notes, "politics have entered a new stage, a television stage...the people want capsule slogans...more bang for a buck, punchlines and glamour." (Schulberg's script can be a little heavy-handed, but with Kazan's assured direction it never becomes overbearing.) The film also hits on the increasing Southern dominance in American culture and politics, and the concomitant hayseed anti-intellectualism. "Back where I come from," Lonesome tells the Senator, encouraging him to soften and dumb-down his approach, "if a fella looks too dignified we figure he's looking to steal your watch." When Lonesome is at a state fair against a backdrop that reads, "The Voice of the Mid South", it's hard to forget that in nearly twenty years we haven't seen an American president who at least didn't pretend to be from the South. "This whole country's just like my flock of sheep," Lonesome explains, "they're mine, I own them. They think like I do, only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em!"

"If they ever heard the way that psycho really talks," the sound engineer laments. The bitterly cynical A Face in the Crowd does just that—it tries to take the plugs out of America's ears so it can hear itself, take the mask off so it can see itself in the mirror—and its leaders and leading figures for who they are. But, as people rarely like to confront the truth, particularly about themselves and the nation they've begat, the film was a flop in its own time and still struggles to overcome obscurity today. See it as soon as you can, readership—it's a masterpiece.


Clayton L. White said...

Now I'm really upset that I missed this on TCM. It amazes me how kind time has been to Kazan's films. His contemporaries may have lost respect for him since he "named names," but his films will stand the test of time. I'm glad that you pointed out how dated Network has become, like most of Lumet's work, it's just a product of it's time.

By the way, since you're a big Kazan fan, have you seen Splendor in the Grass? I personally haven't, but I was just wondering what you thought, seeing as how Warren Beatty was in it.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen Splendor in the Grass in years, but I remember Beatty being a let-down (and this was before I began to despise him!)...just because, coming on the heels of previous Kazan leads like Brando, James Dean, Andy Griffith, etc. he feels conspicuously like second rate (er, generation) Method. That, and the movie's corny as hell!

Kazan is really one hell of a director; he coaxed some of the finest acting in the history of American movies, and he has a very sophisticated visual sense/style to boot. (One of my professors used to say the three best-acted American movies of all time were Streetcar, On the Waterfront and Baby Doll.) Kazan deserves a lot more credit; too bad he named names.

Clayton L. White said...

The most amazing thing about Kazan's films is that they are so uniformly well acted. Waterfront was on TV recently, and I was reminded how great the entire cast is, Brando, of course, gets the most credit, and he deserves it, but Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, and especially Karl Malden, are all phenomenal. Most of the time, you can say there are a few good performances in a movie, but in Kazan's work you're really hard pressed to find one person who isn't just flat out amazing.

Great director who deserves more credit.