A Face in the Crowd (1957)
A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 6 min.

Release Date: June 1st, 1957 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Elia Kazan Actors: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Anthony Franciosa, Walter Matthau, Lee Remick, Percy Waram, Paul McGrath, Rod Brasfield, Marshall Neilan, Alexander Kirkland, Kay Medford




radio journalist Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) arrives at the Tommy Hawk County Jail in northeast Arkansas to record an episode of her roving reporter program called “A Face in the Crowd.” “People are fascinating wherever you find them,” she insists with her standard slogan as she begins the latest session in the dirty, sweaty facility, filled with ornery characters. Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith) is one such tight-lipped prisoner, serving a week-long sentence for a drunk and disorderly charge. With a bit of negotiation, including a reduced stint, he agrees to sing a song and pluck his guitar for the pretty music major, who is immediately captivated by this random stranger. Expedited freedom is a powerful motivator to be amiable.

When Marcia reports back to her boss, Uncle J.B. Jeffries (Howard Smith), she convinces him into allowing Lonesome to appear on her morning show. Though he’s already sprung from the jailhouse, strolling down the road on his way to Florida, Marcia finds him, cleans him up, and puts him in a hotel room. For some reason, she’s convinced that the alcoholic drifter can be a star. He’s crass, uncouth, and lascivious, but his guest role on the station provides a certain entertainment value. And when letters start rolling in, supporting Lonesome’s music and his views on life, along with advertisers calling in to buy air time, the Jeffries family is ecstatic.

Griffith is alternately loud (particularly with his belly-laughs), belligerent, happy-go-lucky, and overly enthusiastic with his performance. He’s perfectly suited for the part, embodying a man with zero aspirations, given a rare opportunity to sway people. And the power steadily goes to his head. From a theatrical agent to television spots to official sponsors to the escalating ability to tilt public opinion (a grassroots democracy movement), influence becomes a terrifyingly potent tool. Neal is equally sensational, providing the viewpoint of idealism, which sadly diminishes in the face of creeping corruption; her conflicted feelings are devastating. Both transformations are riveting, along with their troubled romance (one of the most striking components, which resonates beyond the condemnations of fame and weak principles). And supporting roles by Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa, Rod Brasfield, and Lee Remick are similarly noteworthy.

Rhodes’ casualness and innocence – and his manner of speaking the language of the common folk – aid his meteoric rise into a demagogue. His insistence on doing and saying whatever pops into his head – and staying true to his values – gets him into trouble as well. Those initial values, however, can be purchased for the right price. “You sure know me better than to believe everything I say.” Compromised morals may contribute to a rise, but they also assist in a self-destructive, chaotic fall; at his simplest, Lonesome is a snake oil salesman. It’s here, when he peddles chemically questionable Vitajex, that the satire kicks into overdrive, particularly with a commercial featuring a voluptuous blonde caressing a 10-year-supply bottle of the pills.

“I’m just a country boy!” The greatest instrument in mass persuasion – the television – soon becomes the platform for Rhodes’ political wheeling and dealing. With stardom comes overwhelming power – and its inevitable abuse, which poses dangers not only to Lonesome, but also to the people he cares about (or those who happen to surround him). Tackling controversial and thought-provoking subjects once again, director Elia Kazan crafts an intelligent, scathing critique (from a story and script by Budd Schulberg) of political machinations and the people exploited and perverted by a system of self-serving ladder-climbers (not unlike “All the King’s Men,” but with a focus on how television generates forces of influence to shape – and deceive – public opinions). It’s the kind of cautionary tale (with an astounding, if improbably hopeful, finale) that never loses its relevance. “This whole country’s just like my flock of sheep.”

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10