Criterion Review: A FACE IN THE CROWD

Elia Kazan’s study of power and media still rings true 60 years later

Before Andy Griffith was Matlock or even playing little Ron Howard’s dad on an eponymous show, he broke onto the screen with the role of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd. Griffith never again took on such a twisted character, and to a viewer who grew up watching him play a folksy Southern lawyer, it’s something of a shock seeing the actor in this 1957 film from acclaimed director Elia Kazan (husband to actress/director Barbara Loden).

Patricia Neal (Hud) co-stars as Marcia Jeffries, a radio producer whose stealth recording of a drunk singer at an Arkansas jail leads to his eventual fame. After Larry accepts her uncle’s offer to perform on his station, Neal’s eyes convey Marcia’s warring emotions towards the charismatic man: uncertainty, wariness, fear, and fascination. An educated woman, she serves as sparring partner and manager to Rhodes; there’s an attraction between the two that she holds off until his desire for her is the last card she can play.

Marcia assumes she has control over her situation, but becomes enough enmeshed in Larry’s world to lose her sense of self. Her hot and cold relationship with a possible love interest/writer character played by Walter Matthau shows her indecision: stay with the fascinating man whose trajectory keeps moving forward while he sucks her into his power games, or find romance with the writer on an uncertain income?

“You oughta know me better than to believe everything I say.”

Griffith’s manic Larry uses his “aww shucks” persona to build and convince an audience, growing in influence from a local radio show to a prime-time show on network TV. His Vitajex jingle is so catchy that it might pop into your head days or weeks later. Larry’s ascent and megalomaniacal tendencies make this a movie I have thought of often since the 2016 election. The overt male gaze towards teen drum majors in a contest Larry judges, the manipulation he uses in marketing and his entrance to politics, even the racism that he lets slip when he gets upset — it makes A Face in The Crowd seem a little too on the nose in its allegory, like Kazan and writer Schulberg knew we were destined to face such a person in the future.

The Criterion Blu-ray of A Face in the Crowd includes:

  • Featured interview with Kazan scholar Ron Briley, who speaks about the director’s dealings with the House Un-American Activities Committee and possible inspirations for Lonesome Rhodes.
  • Evan Dalton Smith, Andy Griffith biographer, talks in an interview about how the actor got involved with the picture and how Griffith handled Kazan’s “method” filmmaking. Smith then contrasts Kazan’s thematic choices with themes in The Andy Griffith Show.
  • Original theatrical trailer.
  • 2005 documentary short Facing the Past with stars from the film, film scholars, and screenwriter Budd Schulberg.
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