44 Days of Paranoia #29: A Face In The Crowd (dir by Elia Kazan)


For our latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at Elia Kazan’s 1957 political satire, A Face In The Crowd.

The film opens with radio producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) visiting a local jail in Arkansas.  She’s looking for human interest stories that she can feature on her show and she discovers one when she meets an imprisoned drifter named Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith).  When Marcia interviews him, Rhodes proves himself to be a natural performer, telling folksy jokes and launching into a song about being a “free man in the morning.”  Rhodes proves to be so popular that, after he’s released from jail, he pursues a career in show business with Marcia as both his manager and, eventually, his lover.

Moving to Memphis, a renamed Lonesome Rhodes eventually lands his own television variety show and he soon starts doing irreverent commercials for local companies.  Along the way, Rhodes also finds a new manager, the glib and manic Joey DePalma (Anthony Franciosa).  With the help of Joey, Rhodes becomes the spokesman for a fake energy supplement, Vitajex.

As Rhodes’ fame grows, so does his ego.  After dumping Jeffries, Rhodes impulsively marries a 17 year-old majorette (Lee Remick).  His show also goes national and Rhodes soon starts to use his influence to try to both promote an incompetent, business-backed Presidential candidate and to destroy anyone who he considers to be an enemy.  As his show’s disillusioned head writer (Walter Matthau) puts it, Rhodes has become a “demagogue in denim.”

A Face In The Crowd is a personal favorite of mine.  Director Kazan deftly mixes satire with melodrama and, with the exception of the weak ending, the film’s vision of media manipulation and demagogic celebrities probably feels more plausible today than when it was first released.  The film is full of great performances, from the avuncular Walter Matthau to vulnerable Patricia Neal to the innocent-and-then-not-so-innocent Lee Remick.  Anthony Franciosa is wonderfully glib and sleazy and it’s a lot of fun to watch his joy at discovering how easy it is to manipulate the world.

Ultimately, however, the film’s success is mostly due to Andy Griffith’s amazing performance as Lonesome Rhodes.  Griffith, displaying all of the folksiness but none of the empathy that would be displayed in his later television show, turns Rhodes into a force of nature, a smiling charlatan and a charismatic sociopath who manipulates for the pure enjoyment of manipulation.

To make the obvious comparison, it’s very easy to imagine Lonesome Rhodes getting his own show on MSNBC, where on a nightly basis he could bark orders at his followers and ridicule anyone who dares to question him.  But even beyond that, the character of Lonesome Rhodes resonates.  I’m from the South.  I grew up down here and I live down here.  I can tell you, from my own personal observations and experiences, that we still have our share of demagogues.  Some of them run in elections and some of them preach on Sunday but all of them have got a bit of Lonesome Rhodes inside of them.

For that reason, A Face In The Crowd is probably more relevent today than it’s ever been.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed

2 responses to “44 Days of Paranoia #29: A Face In The Crowd (dir by Elia Kazan)

  1. Late night recently, I caught the opening of “Fox and Friends”, because I thought it would be a merry pantomime–okay, not really, but it is steeped in fantasy. Just the opening of the show has more shameless manipulation than you would find in any speech at Nuremberg, circa 1935. I find it hard to believe that such soulless robots exist on this planet–and the frightening thing is they seem to believe the crap they spew forth on an impressionable public.

    “A Face In The Crowd” is one film I’d really like to see, because it’s a film about television, one of my favourite subgenres of cinema (“Network” and “Goodnight, and Good Luck” being two of my favourite examples). I’ve read a bit about the film before–just thinking about it, the whole idea of taking an uneducated hick and sticking that person on television reminds me of a certain Overexposed Windbag (hint, hint) who has been amazingly successful in bending the will of millions of housewives and couch potatoes all over the world. Honestly, you can give her door-knocker earrings and dress her in the finest European designer clothes, but you can tell by the way she talks and some of the ridiculous things that she says, and the way she appeals to the least desirable emotions of her audience, she’s basically an imbecile. This is what happens when dumb people become excessively adored by the public.

  2. Pingback: 44 Days of Paranoia #36: The Fugitive (dir by Andrew Davis) | Through the Shattered Lens

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