Still relevant – Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd,” now on Criterion
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
“A FACE IN THE CROWD: THE CRITERION COLLECTION”
Blu-ray and DVD, 1957, unrated
Best extra: Interview with Elia Kazan biographer Ron Briley
WATCHING Elia Kazan’s brilliant satire, “A Face in the Crowd,” might inspire viewers to draw some uncomfortable comparisons with the state of politics – especially now – in America.
While Budd Schulberg’s short story, on which the film was based, was published in 1953, and the film came out four years later, the overwhelming power of the media – whether on the radio or television – had already been established. “A Face in the Crowd” follows the career trajectory of a rowdy, charismatic Southern singer Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes played by Andy Griffith, in his first film role.
Rhodes has spent the night in an Arkansas jail for drunk-and-disorderly when Marcia (Patricia Neal), a local radio producer, arrives looking for an interview subject. With Rhodes, who charms her with his guitar and an impromptu country song, Marcia finds more than she’d dreamed of. With her help, Rhodes soon becomes a radio star, who goes on to conquer television. He not only gets his own show, but becomes the successful promoter of commercial products and, ultimately, of political candidates.
Viewers who remember Griffith in his incarnation as Sheriff Andy Taylor, Opie’s (Ron Howard) lovable single father in the long-running TV series, are sure to be surprised and impressed with the insidious darkness he gives his portrayal of Rhodes. Joining Griffith and Neal are Walter Matthau, who plays a TV writer with a cynical voice of reason; Anthony Franciosa as a sleazy advertising exec; and a very young Lee Remick, in her screen debut, as the sexy baton twirler whom Rhodes lusts after and soon marries. By doing so, Rhodes breaks Marcia’s heart, and the revenge she exacts puts a sudden end to his career.
This Criterion Collection is derived from the original 35mm black and white film, which was scanned and mastered in 4K. Clarity and detail are excellent from the down-converted Blu-ray, with intensely inky blacks and tremendous variation from dark to light. The audio is also very good, dialogue always sharp, and effects and music well-modulated.
Extras include a 2018 interview with Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith; a 2005 documentary that first appeared on a DVD that year, featuring interviews with Griffith, Neal, Franciosa and Schulberg; a booklet containing a recent essay by film critic April Wolfe, plus excerpts from Kazan’s introduction to “Face’s” screenplay, and a 1957 newspaper profile of Griffith.
The 2018 interview with Kazan biographer Ron Briley is especially informative. Briley notes that Kazan had always been critical of Madison Avenue, as well as politicians who were manipulated by money. Briley briefly describes Kazan’s life, born in Istanbul, the son of a rug merchant, who began his directing career in the theater.
Kazan had been a member of the American Communist party for two years, during which a great many Hollywood writers, directors and actors had also joined. Briley describes the two occasions, after Kazan quit the party, when he was called before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. The first time, Kazan refused to cooperate. The second, he gave up the names of other writers, directors and actors, after which he defended himself for doing so in a New York Times paid ad. As it happened, Schulberg had also testified and named names for HUAC. Both men, especially Kazan, were vilified for those actions for the rest of their lives. That was one of the reasons the two worked together on several projects including “On the Waterfront.” Briley suggests the Lonesome Rhodes character in the film was based on a composite of real people, including Will Rogers, Huey Long and Arthur Godfrey.
Briley calls “A Face in the Crowd” the second part of a Kazan “Southern trilogy,” along with “Baby Doll” and “Wild River.” The ultimate irony about “Face,” notes Briley, is that when it came out, it was panned as left-wing propaganda by the conservative media, and lauded by left-wing publications.
— Peggy Earle