Every week, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
A Face In the Crowd (1957)
There’s nothing like political paranoia to get a story going. There’s also nothing like a film that was so far ahead of its time that it would predict the everyday use of concepts like “sound bites” and “media saturation.” Somehow, even in 1957 as the television was changing the face of the game in the pop-culture corners of the country, Budd Schulberg, the screenwriter, and famous director Elia Kazan were able to see the implications of readily available mass-media three years before the famous televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. That debate is still studied today and widely regarded as the moment that camera-readiness took over as the main concern, it’s a moment that more than a few political thinkers see as the instant that substance in debates was traded for a good make-up consultant.
But A Face in the Crowd speaks to even more political issues, some that wouldn’t fully take root until decades later, some that we’re saturated by every two years. Most notably is the sequence in which a group of major political donors decide that slogans and quick sound bites should take the place of speeches after watching their man flounder. Pretty soon, they are hiring what amounts to a proto-PR consultant.
The main story focuses on Lonesome Rhodes, played disgustingly well by an unrecognizable Andy Griffith in his first true dramatic role. Rhodes is a bum. He’s a loser locked away in a jail cell that is fished out by a reporter who recognizes a certain charismatic quality to the ruffian, and she makes him a regular on her show. This soon gives way to a rise in his fame, moving from host to leading voice to the man hired to sculpt the candidates look and delivery.
If there’s any reason to see this movie, it’s to see Griffith’s performance. He is sickening, cold and unreal, sweating through every frame with the grin of a madman who has a captive audience. He is at once, a representation of a certain breed of ego that exists in this country (and many others), and a metaphor for the entire media movement. Rhodes is a monster who rises thinking that he’s not only a chosen voice for the people, but their chosen brain as well. Even worse, he’s a monster who is fed by his handlers into believing in the gullibility of the American people – especially the American consumer.
Of course despite the film being a flop when it first came out, it’s also worth checking out because of Kazan’s style work. The legendary director behind A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden does a very cool thing with this film by predicting the rise of the visual medium as a sort of Frankenstein story while shooting in several different ways. Some scenes are framed stoically, giving strong impressions of the subject matter. Others are done almost documentary style, following characters as if a real media star is on the rise. Still other shots borrow a bit from Citizen Kane in presenting a larger-than-life figure that quickly becoming bigger and bigger as the twelve-inch version of him has the ability to invade your living room.
It’s not all that funny – most of the humor falls flat. But it’s scary, frightening. Especially if its message is extrapolated to cover what politics in our media age has become. A Face in the Crowd doesn’t necessarily predict a 24-hour news cycle, but it says a lot about what the dangers of that reality can be. It’s pacing is tight as a snare drum, characters are callow and snarling. Even at two hours, it feels like a much faster film, and most of that is owed to captivating performances by Griffith and Patricia Neal as the reporter who gives him life beyond the jail cell.
Above all else, A Face in the Crowd is a story about style over substance and the possibilities of placing an unethical egomaniac in the driver’s seat of a political campaign. It’s a tale worth telling about how obsession with the visual can become more important than concern for character. It’s the world of a man who can make you smile while he’s stabbing you in the back.
And isn’t that all you could want from a political thriller?