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A Face in the Crowd

If you never thought that Matlock — ol' Sheriff Andy from Mayberry — could frighten you, then you absolutely must see A Face in the Crowd (1957). This pitch-black comedy-drama was one of a number of "message pictures" that were released in the 1950s, socially conscious films that offered cautionary tales on contemporary issues. Here, the issue was the fairly new phenomenon of television fame — what was behind the hucksterism and the instant celebrity of the infant medium. Andy Griffith plays a guitar-pickin' hillbilly singer named Larry Rhodes, a womanizing boozehound with enough charisma to shoot him to the show-biz big leagues. While cooling his heels in a small-town jail for disorderly conduct, he's discovered by a local radio host (Patricia Neal), seeking talent for her "Face in the Crowd" segment. Giving him the moniker "Lonesome," she puts him on the air where he's to play a little guitar, sing a song, and spin a down-home yarn — being a con-man and a traveling shyster preacher, this is right up Rhodes' alley, and soon he's so popular that he's signed to a national television deal, becoming extremely powerful and influential. More than just an entertainer, he becomes, in his own words, "an influence, a wielder of opinion, a force!" Of course, having been a sociopath to begin with, fame also turns him into a terrifying, ego-driven monster. With a razor-sharp screenplay by Budd Shulberg (based on his own story "The Arkansas Traveler") and directed by Elia Kazan, A Face in the Crowd is a prescient film, coming long before the current days of Oprah and Limbaugh and "American Idol," arriving just as television was becoming important enough to make or break an election or sell a war. It's very dark, a little heavy-handed, and a bit overlong, but the message is still powerful. There are some wonderful secondary performances in the film by Neal as Rhodes' manager/lover as well as Anthony Franciosa, Walter Matthau, Paul McGrath, and a spectacular turn by the stunning Lee Remick in her first film role as the nubile baton-twirler who becomes Rhodes' child bride. But it's newcomer Griffith who truly owns the film, giving a jaw-dropping performance — sexy, mean, dripping with charm and menace — that makes everything else he did in the remainder of his impressive career seem like an anticlimax. An intense psychological study and sociological satire, the film is as relevant today as it was in 1957 — painfully so, when Rhodes' rise is viewed in the context of the mass popularity of the likes of Bill O'Reilly, our folksy, faux-populist Texan president, and especially our previous commander-in-chief, whose own smooth manner, television appeal, and Arkansas twang also covered a secret life of womanizing, ego, and deceit. One of the great films of the 20th century, this one is an essential. Part of Warner Home Video's "Controversial Classics Collection," A Face in the Crowd is presented in a good, if not great, anamorphic transfer (2.55:1) that's pretty clean but also rather soft, with less contrast than would be ideal, whole audio is good in Dolby 2.0 Surround. Extras include "Facing the Past"(29 min.), a nice featurette on the film, Kazan, and the HUAC hearings with interviews with Shulberg, Griffith, Neal, Franciosa, and film scholars. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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