June 9, 2009

A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Grade: 74/100

Director: Elia Kazan
Stars: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau

What it's about. The rise and fall of a demagogue. Shrewd, alcoholic 'man of the people' singer Andy Griffith is discovered by Patricia Neal, who is in awe of his populist talents. Neal is the producer of his show, which soon rises from Podunk, Arkansas, to Memphis, then to the big time in New York City.

Along his way up, Griffith acquires an agent, the shameless Anthony Franciosa, and a young wife, high school baton twirler Lee Remick. He also makes enemies who despise him, personified by the ever acerbic Walter Matthau. Griffith somehow maintains the loyalty of Neal, despite crushing her romantic expectations.

Griffith is not content to simply become wealthy entertaining the masses. He longs for political power, increasingly possible given his massive nationwide audience of rednecks, blue collar workers, and frumpy housewives. Griffith intends to make a President out of formerly honorable senator Marshall Neilan, and he expects a cabinet position in return.

This is all too much for Matthau, who gets inside information from Griffith's handler, Neal. Matthau, who is sweet on Neal, tries to get her to sabotage Griffith's career, probably hoping to catch Neal on the rebound.

How others will see it. A Face in the Crowd was well received by critics, and provided the debut film role for three future stars: Griffith, Remick, and Franciosa. The intense drama has cross-generational appeal. Those under thirty can enjoy the over-the-top performances. Those over thirty can nod their head wisely, secure that they fully understand the movie's message.

Women appreciate the film less than men, partly because Griffith comes across as truly obnoxious, and partly because the film is basically an ugly indictment of the entertainment industry. That is to say, director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg made no effort to appeal to females, expected to prefer color movies such as Peyton Place. Certainly, women were not in mind when Walter Matthau was cast as a love interest for Patricia Neal.

How I felt about it. To understand A Face in the Crowd, one has to begin with the rivalry between cinema and television. Throughout the 1950s, more and more families were staying home at night and watching television, eschewing theaters. One of the best satires of the 1950s, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, lampooned television, depicting it as low entertainment for the mindless. The conclusion you were to draw is that cinema was the alternative for insight and credible drama.

Fair enough, although, as in any era, plenty of bad movies were made in the 1950s, even by major studios. And the heroes presented in the movies weren't necessarily more laudable than their television counterparts.

The villains were different, though, at least in the good films. The bad guy isn't merely a criminal trying to seize someone's ranch. He's a demagogue interested in increasing his political power, or, as in The Sweet Smell of Success, he simply wants to make a lot of money, by whatever means possible however sleazy.

Depth of character does not necessarily follow. Andy Griffith is so overwhelmingly unpleasant throughout that his "charm" seems as false as his smile when the film is rolling. Why would Neal want to marry such a walking disaster, no matter how many fan letters he happens to get? One has to admit, though, that the movie is as timely at the time of writing (2009) as it was in 1957. You'd think that the movie was based on Rush Limbaugh instead of Arthur Godfrey.