During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.
It is startling to see film that predicted the future. It is even worse when you read that audiences at the time largely ignored the movie. Of all we have watched in this series, 1957’s “A Face in the Crowd” stands out as one of the most unforgettable and, for me, it is my favorite movie so far.
“A Face in the Crowd” stars Andy Griffith before he made his name in television on The Andy Griffith Show and later Matlock. Griffith plays a drifter named “Lonesome” Rhodes. Detained in a rural Arkansas jail for public drunkenness, Rhodes is discovered by a local radio personality, Marcia Jeffries (played by Patricia Neal). She also happens to be the niece of the radio station’s owner. She is immediately smitten with Rhodes’ easy charm, folksy wisdom, and his singing and guitar playing. She convinces her uncle to give Lonesome a slot on their radio station and it’s a natural fit. Quickly, Rhodes gains in popularity and gets noticed by a Memphis television station before he finds his way to national fame with his own program filmed out of New York.
Andy Griffith is as American as the Fourth of July. Growing up, the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show was a signal that somewhere in some room my father was watching television. I never took to watching the show, but through him I am very familiar with its primary players: the maternal Aunt Bee, Ron Howard’s everykid Opie, Don Knotts as the lovable fuck-up, and America’s dad Andy Griffith himself.
Diane, however, came into “A Face in the Crowd” never seeing The Andy Griffith Show or, for that matter, Matlock. Though she knew who he was and recognized his face, we each watched the film with vastly different expectations of Andy Griffith the actor.
For me, that proved to make the character of Lonesome Rhodes more enticing. He is Andy Griffith, wholesome television personality, the same way a wolf in sheep’s clothing is a sheep. From the movie’s opening where a grumpy Rhodes is turned over on the floor of a jail cell and asked to play a tune on his guitar for the radio, I couldn’t look away from Griffith’s performance. As he cleared his throat from a bottle of hard liquor he keeps in his guitar case to his speech about his fellow downtrodden and discard inmates, his charisma is evident. When he finally pairs his raw, salt-of-the-earth demeanor with his raspy vocals and intermittent strums of his guitar, the song he plays about being a free man in the morning completes a perfect introduction.
“A Face in the Crowd” and Griffith play off the story as the beginnings of a rags-to-riches story. In a way it is, but beneath the surface biopic of a nobody with nothing rising to be a somebody with something, Griffith plays Rhodes with such intensity that it is like peering into a storm on the horizon. In ever scene, he demands your attention and challenges you to look away. Unlike similar stories, Rhodes is not a man to be cheered or admired. He has no character flaw the audience wants to see corrected. There is no love that will fix him. This is the origin story of a villain that balances awe of his ascension with demand for his fall.
I am deliberately trying to be vague because I feel like this movie should be a required watch for modern audiences. “A Face in the Crowd” foretells the rise of populism in American politics. It’s eerie how many things it gets right. The Nixon-Kennedy Debates, famous for being the first televised presidential debates, would not happen for another three years. In “A Face in the Crowd”, the so called “man of the people” Lonesome Rhodes is brought in to help rebrand the television image of a Senator running for President to make him more appealing to people who vote with their heart and gut rather than on the merits of the candidate.
Through these political ties, Rhodes is looking to become a chief influencer for the entire country. In fact, the word influencer is used several times here. I cannot imagine a movie about a man who takes advantage of his charm to win over the common main, despite his loathing for them, went over well in a day-and-age where the medium of television was still a fresh idea and the concerns about how less virtuous people could take advantage of a nationwide audience were mostly unexplored. Though not a focal point of the film, it is easy to see the populist “not a politician” character of Rhodes one day aiming for the office of President himself. It fascinates me to see a movie raise the issue of populist American leaders long before the likes of Reagan, Clinton, Obama, and then Trump.
Beyond the plot, I have nothing but praise for the performances. Its cliched, but Andy Griffith is electric in this role. From his forced laugh to his “awe shucks” look, he flips back and forth from madman to comforting friend with ease. Easily on par with Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker, Lonesome Rhodes feels like he exists, independent of Griffith the performer, as a force of pure self-interest willing to use any and everyone to gain more power and influence.
Opposite him, Patricia Neal’s Marcia works perfectly as the on again, off again love interest and “creator” of Lonesome Rhodes the brand and influencer. I loved her character because she too feels real. From the start, she is enamored with Rhodes and its evident she is developing feelings for him, yet she tries to resist because she also understands that he is a destructive force. When he suddenly proposes to her, despite just telling her that he was with another woman, her agreement does not feel like Hollywood cliché as much as it feels like an honest depiction of a person caught in a toxic relationship. When Rhodes shows up married to a 17-year old girl instead of divorced and ready to marry Marcia, it’s a confirmation that Rhodes is the bad guy and Marcia the hero. That she persists loving him on the margins of his success without coming off as a lovesick woman character in a bad romance movie is a marvel of the film’s script and Neal’s performance.
A young Walter Matthau also has a supporting role as Mel Miller. He meets Lonesome Rhodes and Marcia in Memphis, where he is hired as a writer for Rhodes on his new television show. He sees through Rhodes outward persona and gradually comes to love Marcia himself. Like the mature, modern writing of Marcia’s character, Mel does not force a love triangle into a movie where it does not belong. He exits from the two’s life once he realizes their effect on him, but when he reenters the picture toward the end, he helps say what an emotionally distraught Marcia cannot.
This is not just a well-written and expertly acted movie. The cinematography is also fantastic. Early on when the movie is centered in no air conditioning Arkansas in the middle of the summer, every actor has a fresh sheen of sweat on their brow. It gives the movie a realness that others in this series have lacked. With the lines about how Rhodes only owns one shirt, the absence of sweat and the varied wardrobe of Rhodes later in the film help add a visual continuity that only furthers the story as a rise out of poverty and obscurity to something more. It’s one of those details, deliberate or not, that give the whole film an authenticity that adds to the immersion.
If it is not otherwise clear, we loved “A Face in the Crowd”. I have no complaints about this movie. I would recommend it to anyone, especially those interested in the history of politics or who want to see chaotic evil Andy Griffith literally own every scene he is in. This is exactly the kind of movie I hoped to find in this series. Like “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, it is a piece of cinematic history that I would have missed otherwise and hope to revisit again and again. “A Face in the Crowd” is an American classic, beyond its time when it first came out, and now finally in a time where it is more relevant than ever.
For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.