Well, I didn’t hate it, but I nearly turned it off within the first ten minutes. I’m talking about Elia Kazan’s 1957 classic A Face In The Crowd, starring Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, and making his film debut – Andy Griffith.
This isn’t Andy Taylor. This isn’t Ben Matlock. No. This is “Lonesome” Rhodes. He’s a drunk and a drifter. A nobody. A face in the crowd. He’s discovered in a small Arkansas town jail by a fresh-faced, naive, but ambitious woman who works at her uncle’s radio station.
Her name is Marcia Jefferies, played by Patricia Neal, and she came up with the concept of “a face in the crowd” as an on-air segment for the radio station. She intends to interview regular, everyday folk. People who the public at large don’t think of, but might be every bit as compelling as any celebrity. She believes these people have a story to tell. And it was she who brings Rhodes to the attention of the modest audience of her uncle’s station.
Rhodes can sing, he can tell stories, and he speaks truth to power. The public loves him instantly. He rockets from the small town station to being the host of television’s highest rated show. Rhodes becomes a powerful voice in the American political scene with great sway over his sizable viewing audience.
But power corrupts. Actually, I think this story is more of a case of power revealing someone’s true nature. Rhodes was never a saint. He was just such a fresh presence that people either overlooked, rationalized, or even admired his rough edges. It was those rough edges that made him exciting and real to his audience. Until his attitude toward that audience was finally revealed, he seemed to be unassailable. However, that attitude was revealed and as quickly as he rose, he crashed.
It’s a fascinating film, but did I like it?
As I said, I didn’t hate it. The problem I had with the film, which almost had me shutting it of not ten minutes in, was “Lonesome” Rhodes. Perhaps I’m too accustomed to the calm, laid back, steady Sheriff Andy Taylor character that when I saw Rhodes it was almost too unsettling. Maybe, but if I never knew of that sheriff of Mayberry, North Carolina I think I would still be put off by “Lonesome.”
Right from the start, he is so obnoxious I find it hard to believe anyone would want to listen to him in a jail cell, let alone on the radio or television. Griffith’s performance is as scenery-chewing as any I have ever witnessed. He’s crude, sweaty, wild-eyed, and loud. Oh, brother, is he loud. Half his dialogue is delivered at the top of his lungs. I’m surprised Griffith’s voice held up.
When he sings that first song (Free Man in the Mornin’) in the drunk tank, a song he makes up on the spot, which he shouts and growls as much sings, I was feeling compelled to reach for the remote to hit the eject button. But I didn’t. This was an Elia Kazan film. I haven’t seen many of his films, but those I’ve seen feel real. They surprise me with a gritty truthfulness that films of the 1950s aren’t exactly known for.
It’s Kazan. I stayed with it.
I’m glad I did, but I’m still not sure I liked it.
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