‘A Face in The Crowd’ or — American Horror Story?

(No spoilers)

Ambitious radio producer, Marcia Jefferies (Patricia Neal), is always looking for that new “face in the crowd” to appear on her show of the same name. And she believes she’s found one at the local jail in the form of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a wandering drunk with the gift of the gab, a song always at the ready and a smile as broad as the Mississippi. Although he is also spending the night in jail so let’s maybe hold off romantising this character just yet?

Rhodes is an immediate success with the listeners (I see nobody listened to my advice, then!) who respond to his folksy straight talk that cuts through all the bullshit and soon he has his own radio show where sponsors, the local Sheriff and even the station boss himself are all targets for “Lonesome” Rhodes’ dose of ordinary honesty. After all, Rhodes is just along for the ride so has nothing to lose. He is, indeed, a “free man” and no one can silence a free man.

Soon TV networks are paying attention, then advertising agencies and it soon becomes apparent that it’s not a case of if “Lonesome” is going to make it but more how far can he go? And on his way up he’s sure as hell going to let America, the media and politicians learn a thing or two about themselves. Or maybe we’re all going to end up learning something about “Lonesome” Rhodes himself?

Elia Kazan’s ‘A Face In The Crowd’ (1957) is a sharp, energetic satire about TV, fame, radio, advertising, individualism, popularism, infidelity, celebrity and politics. Phew! It shows how a little bit of charm can take you a long way and a lot of charm even further. It’s a devastating, explosive experience that’s as gripping as it is incendiary.

The depth of the black and white cinematography pulls (sucks?) us in with quite a force, countless faces staring at us whilst Rhode’s rictus grin fills the screen with such intensity I was worried my head was going to get bitten off. Crunch! Politics, the media, advertising result in a dangerous and deadly animal. Except. Except?

Except it’s not just about all that, and this film is about enough already as it is!

It’s also about the appropriation of black culture (notice how Rhodes sings quasi-spirituals as opposed to country music) and how that can be used to disguise all manner of sins (“How can I hate ’em when I love their music?” sort of thing). This is apparent in the film’s most revealing scene when we get a true glimpse into the “real” Rhodes when he addresses his black servants, and it’s not pleasant.

Not that the movie is flawless. Walter Matthau’s Mel Miller, a writer, feels like a proxy for the film’s actual screenwriter, sometimes getting off on his own dialogue a little too much as he nods in approval at some of Rhode’s linguistic outbursts… that the screenwriter would have obviously written himself. Also, the movie plays off against itself quite a bit, so the film can come off a tad smug and meta. But I quite like smug and meta.

And talking of smug and meta, I suspect ‘A Face in The Crowd’ must have heavily influenced ‘Seinfeld’, the montage of the viewers observing Rhode’s “private” views of his audience lifted wholesale for the ‘Seinfeld’ episode ‘The Pilot’. I can also imagine someone from Arkansas watching this and saying “Hey! This is nothing more than those East Coast, New York intellectual types looking down on us Southerners!”… and they’d be right because there’s an explicit whiff of condescension towards the South here, although I suspect Kazan would’ve denied this at the time.

Also the film’s structure and tone come at the cost of some emotional involvement. For example, how long a time period does this story take place over? The film suggests it could be a few years, even a decade or two, but there’s no aging at all and viewed from a certain angle all this could’ve occurred over the course of a few months. This gives ‘A Face in The Crowd’ the feeling of a dream, where “reality” and time have been suspended, allowing us a closer examination of what we’re observing.

But overall ‘A Face in The Crowd’ is an absolutely fantastic movie. It’s a damning insight into an area that affects our lives vastly more so than back in ’57, to the extent we might not even notice. It also contains one of the greatest montage sequences (“Vitajix!”) I’ve witnessed.

‘A Face in The Crowd’ is one of the best satires about the American media I’ve seen, but wait until that final shot; it’s then we discover it’s actually a horror film… and one that’s a screaming nightmare.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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