Sunday, October 5, 2008

Review – A Face in the Crowd

October 5, 2008

A Face in the Crowd – U.S., 1957

Is Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith) a nice man gone bad or a man whose dark side finally comes out? That was the question that occupied my mind as Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd came to its logical, but emotional conclusion, and it is a query that Kazan likely left vague on purpose. In the beginning of the film, what we do know about Mr. Rhodes is somewhat limited. We know that he loves women and alcohol, though not in that order, and we sense that he is perfectly content to wander aimlessly from city to city. We see that he has a way with words and music, and that on the surface at least he empathizes with the oppressed. However, where he’s from, what he’s done, why he is who he is – these details are all withheld from us, and even when Lonesome does provide some information, its reliability is suspect.

It is fitting that Mr. Rhodes is behind bars when we meet him, his crime public drunkenness. Even more telling is his response to a radio interview request, “What do I get out of this?” The answer, a release the following day, energizes him instantaneously and in a split second he goes from being an angry, uncooperative inmate with a splitting hangover to a jovial, whimsical performer happy to entertain listeners. Is this his true personality, or is it simply a face that he puts on when people’s attentive eyes suddenly begin focusing on him? Whatever the answer, there’s no denying Mr. Rhodes’ likeability. Local radio reporter Martha Jeffries’ beaming, captivated face as Mr. Rhodes sings “Free Man in the Morning” is the proof of that. Sensing she’s discovered a man of great talent and potential, she offers him a job on the radio. Not sure that he wants a job, but absolutely sure he wants Martha Jeffries (Patricia Neal), he accepts her offer. Thus begins the meteoric rise of Lonesome Rhodes, a man who may or may not deserve all that’s coming to him.

A Face in the Crowd is a film about an America in transition. Televisions have spread throughout the country, and the general public’s concept of exactly what constitutes a celebrity is changing. A captivating voice is not enough anymore; now it is a person’s appearance, his smile, the sparkle in his eyes, his ability to talk into a camera, that are of the utmost importance. And Lonesome Rhodes has these qualities in spades. With them, he can make people feel that he speaks for them, that he understands them, that he is their champion. He is a man perfectly fit for television and perhaps also for politics, for as he points out, the television has changed how politics can be presented. Details are not important; rather it’s the sound bite, that ten-word slogan that reduces complicated topics to vague clichés, that carries the most weight. That, celebrity endorsements, and of course a smile that assures the television audience that the person on the screen in front of them is one they can trust.

Much of A Face in the Crowd is devoted to detailing Lonesome’s rise in fame and power. We watch him go from a local radio celebrity with morals to a star who has his own nationally syndicated TV show, but has no qualms hawking superfluous and often ineffective products in the name of fame and money. It is an abrupt but only partly surprising transformation because of the kind of film that A Face in the Crowd is. However, that Martha continues to believe in Lonesome, to hold onto the notion that while he may be different now, he is still the same inspirational man on the inside in spite of the mountains of evidence to the contrary, reveals the depths of her feelings for him and only adds to our sympathy for her. The scene in which Lonesome returns from a trip to Mexico, a trip that she was led to believe would ensure their future happiness but only increases her hopelessness and despair, is indeed heartbreaking.

Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd works for the most part, and while its finale was not a surprise, that may have been because many films that followed this one used the same technique and thus made the ending rather commonplace. That was likely not the case when the film was initially released. The film also introduced Andy Griffith, at that time mostly known for stand-up comedy, to Hollywood as well as allowing audiences to see the dramatic skills of a young Walter Matthau, who plays a man seemingly stuck in a profession he despises. Both of them give strong performances in this film. A Face in the Crowd is a good film about a time that changed America, a change that we continue to see the affects of today. Those who watch it will not be disappointed. (on DVD)

3 and a half stars

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