I’ve been aware of director Elia Kazan’s 1957 film “A Face in the Crowd” for well over a decade, but until this past weekend, I had never actually seen the entire movie. I had caught snippets of it, and years ago a friend went so far as to tape it off of TCM for me on a VHS tape that I somehow never got around to. I knew the basic points about trying to see the movie “It’s really good and it stars Andy Griffith in a way you’ve never seen him before.” The film was the big screen debut for Griffith, made years before he would find himself embedded in the culture as Sheriff Taylor then later Ben Matlock.
“A Face in the Crowd” was a flop when it was released, but as is the case with so many movies, time has caused the movie to become something of a landmark film. In fact, I think the film plays better now thanks to the fact that in this movie Griffith is the polar opposite of Mayberry’s finest. Not to mention that watching “A Face in the Crowd” in the post-2016 world can be a little, let’s say, sobering. The film, written by Budd Schulberg is a dramatic satire at the power of the media, how it can transform, the dangers of power, and what can happen when this intersects with the world of politics.
Griffith stars as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes. A guitar-playing wanderer discovered in a drunk tank in Arkansas by an ambitious radio producer, Marcia Jefferies, played by the great Patrica Neal. Jefferies has a morning radio show that looks at people in the community and puts them on the air for a little bit. After Rhodes segment goes over the best of any previously broadcast, her uncle who owns the radio station and her decides to put Rhodes on the air every morning.
Rhodes soon becomes a small town phenomenon, which leads to being courted by a TV station in Memphis for a local show. What happened in the small town repeats itself in Memphis. Rhodes becomes massively popular, even causing a demonstration in front of the offices of the mattress company that was sponsoring Rhodes, after kicking him off the air for not reading the copy for the ad word for word. What follows is national TV, and soon Rhodes is watched weekly by 40 million people.
With each higher rung on the ladder, Rhodes becomes consumed with power and ego, blowing up to epic sizes. Soon, Rhodes has a senator looking to run for president coming to him for an image makeover. Though on TV Rhodes is the gentle, folksy “Arkansas Traveler,” in select he’s become a monster. Screaming and yelling at staff who dare to cross him. Something that also seems familiar in these modern times. This is a hell of a movie, with an absolutely stunning once in a lifetime performance by Andy Griffith.
“A Face in The Crowd” comes to blu-ray in a brand new edition from The Criterion Collection that features an absolutely beautiful looking 4K restoration made from the original camera negative. The black and white movie looks the best it ever has, with a clear, sharp image that features deep and bright tones in the black, white, and grayscale respectively. Extras are smaller than on some Criterion editions, but it makes for a wonderful supplement to the movie.
New material is interviews with Ron Briley, author of a book on Elia Kazan, and with Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith. From the 2005 DVD release is a documentary on the film that features Griffith, Neal, and the screenwriter Schulberg. The film’s original trailer is included, along with an essay by April Wolfe, excerpts from Kazan’s published screenplay, and a 1957 profile of Griffith.
“A Face in the Crowd” is an amazing movie that seems eerily more prescient now than when it was released in the late 1950s. A look at just how far things can go when politics and celebrity get in bed with one another, and how quickly vast, unlimited power can change a person. This new edition from Criterion is a must own, I can’t recall the last time a movie knocked me out quite as this one did. See you next week.