a face in the crowd is a film every one should see. it isn’t a fun movie. it might feel long in places. perhaps, for the standard movie-goer, it doesn’t hold up well to repeated viewings. but it’s an important film. and whether you like it or not, it leaves a grim impression on the viewer which you will probably never get totally free of.
it was the first film for andy griffith, who was just getting his career going. he would hardly have the chance to play such a wild and dramaticly interesting character again, getting largely typecast as an honest, smart and patient southern man for most of his career. this happens to be not far from the type of man he seems to have been, so good for him.
but his character here, a ne’er-do-well ruffian named lonesome rhodes, is a far cry from the rest of griffith’s body of work. his dark portrayal is solidified by elia kazan’s hopscotching directorial style and wickedly ironic and irrelevant montage.
the film starts out as marcia jeffries (patricia neal) is doing a radio show for her uncle’s station. her show is called ‘a face in the crowd’ and she gets the idea to go to the local jail and interview whoever she finds.
in the jail she comes across lonesome rhodes (andy griffith). he’s a hungover tramp in for a brief stint and after a little arguing he agrees to sing a little song, since he has a guitar with him. actually it’s more than arguing. he only agrees to talk to marcia after the sheriff agrees to cut short his sentence.
so he sings a song which is soulful and bluesy. he spouts some observations about people. marcia leaves satisfied.
but people who hear the broadcast are taken with lonesome. they mistake his simple and quite obvious observations about their lives as insight and actual caring. some calls come in. and so marcia finds lonesome and puts him on the radio for a regular show.
his show is a mix of songs and rants. almost immediately lonesome gets a sense of the power inherent in having uncritical strangers listen to you. he soon uses this power to get revenge after a slight and then to try to influence a local election.
soon the big city comes calling and they want to put lonesome rhodes on television. he goes and meets with the network.
the sponsor is a pill called ‘vita-jex’ which seems like a snake oil type cure-all product for men that will give them energy, sharpness, and quite possibly, better erections. lonesome himself helps with the marketing by coming up with a song and a strategy. the commercial features bouncing, grateful women who are now so pleased with their men they can barely contain themselves.
lonesome soon achieves success on television. he meets a behind-the-scenes politico who wants lonesome to consult on a friend’s presidential run.
he is a superstar and is on track to marry marcia, but soon betrays her by marrying an underage baton twirler (lee remick) as he starts his downward slide.
eventually lonesome rhodes gets too big for his own britches. he goes to far. he says too much. he has a fall from grace.
that’s about as much as i want to say about the plot. the script is sly and cynical, smart and relentless. it was written by budd schulberg, who also wrote on the waterfront.
the film is social criticism of the best kind, and although it’s not very subtle, it’s extremely effective.
watching the movie now it’s very hard to not make parallels to people like rush limbaugh, sean hannity, glenn beck and bill o’reilly. these men all seem to practice a similar, emotionally based trade of playing upon people’s feelings of fear and superiority to consolidate power and wealth.
it’s hard to ever take men like this seriously after seeing lonesome rhodes’ story. are they just like him? are they also brimming with contempt for the people they pander to? are they only saying what they say to keep people riled up but also to keep them as thoughtless, uninformed consumers? how much of them is just entertainment and how much is real? can anyone in the media really be believed?
above is a segment from lonesome rhodes’ tv show which serves as a quasi-commercial for vita-jex. notice how really little has changed in the tenor of the marketing of bullshit from 1957 till now. people now, as then, are attracted to simple solutions which satisfy their emotions and sense of self worth and importance. and what’s simpler than a pill to make everything better?
i challenge to you watch a commercial for viagra or cialis or even heart medication and not think of this ad for a long, long time. maybe it’s me, but i cannot help but reference it when i see ads for almost anything. i first saw this film when i was 10 or 11 and the impression it left on me has never diminished. to this day i can never watch an ad and see it just for what it is. i can’t take the pitch seriously and if i can’t laugh at part of it, i criticize it instead.
i have the same response to anyone in the media, whether it’s rachel maddow, jon stewart or the above mentioned right wingers. with anything that someone in the media is trying to communicate i catch myself asking these questions: who is saying this? what does the person writing or saying this what me to think, and why? how do they or anyone else benefit from me thinking that? and the result is i can hardly take anything in the media seriously, either.
i credit this film with putting the seed of that idea in my head when i first saw it as a little kid. now when i watch this film, it’s like having one of my favorite meals again. i enjoy it. i’m reminded why i like it. it’s one of the greats.
below is a trailer for the film which i think is what played in the theaters. i don’t think it does nearly enough to sell what this film actually is. watching the trailer but knowing the film, i’m struck by how much even the marketing of films has changed.
if this film was to be released now, each and every turn in the scenario would be spelled out. there’d be as little mystery to what this film really was as possible. i don’t think i like this trailer below…but i still prefer it to how it would probably be edited together for the film’s trailer in the current media climate.