Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Face in the Crowd

Beloved television star Andy Griffith died today and by coincidence I recently watched  his film debut that was miles away from his trademarked roles as the criminal defense attorney and sheriff of Mayberry. "A Face in the Crowd" tells the story of an Arkansas radio producer (Patricia Neal) visiting small town jail in search of personalities to display on her morning show of the same title. In the drunk tank, lying on the ground near his guitar, she finds the astringent, acid tongued Lonesome Rhodes who seems to be a natural fit for radio and an instant success. Soon he graduates from radio to television and leaves for New York, quickly becoming the most powerful man in television, and stopping at nothing to attain this status. Like "Network" which followed two decades later, Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd" is a vitriolic condemnation of the media and the monsters it creates that was ahead of its time. Reteaming with his "On the Waterfront" screenwriter Budd Schulberg, Kazan is unrelenting in his portrayal of corruption in what is another superbly concocted film from the legendary overseer. Griffith, in a role so caustic he never sought out a similar one again, is an absolute whirlwind who is actually frightening in his morbidity at times. Neal is likewise wonderful as the woman who helped create the monster, falls in love with him, and eventually realizes that she herself must put him down. The ending is also particularly powerful. Walter Matthau is, however, oddly disappointing playing the straight man. "A Face in the Crowd" seems intimately familiar with its media settings (cameos by Mike Wallace and Walter Winchell are a real treat) and spins a scary tale, not only because of how ruthless and amoral its lead character is, but also because of how plausible it could be.