February 09, 2007

Demagogue in Denim

Today I saw A Face in the Crowd, a 1957 film I had never heard of five days ago, and it blew me away. It was directed by Elia Kazan of A Streetcar Named Desire and Baby Doll (which I loved), and On the Waterfront (which I rather keenly disliked), as well as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and East of Eden (which I should probably see someday). It features the big-screen debuts of Andy Griffith and Lee Remick, as well as Walter Matthau only a few years into his movie career (I believe this was his first non-Western film role).

A Face in the Crowd is about a wandering Arkansas alcoholic with a guitar and a boatload of charisma who rockets to fame as a TV personality, and eventually becomes a potent political force before his mean arrogance brings him crashing back down. The structure is very similar to 1949's All the King's Men (and probably many others), but much better here. The cinematography, sets, writing, and most especially the acting are top-notch. This film bombed with audiences when it was first release, and was completely ignored at the Oscars (notables that year include The Bridge on the River Kwai and 12 Angry Men). This is rather too bad, as the film is a masterpiece and a true classic. It doesn't deserve this obscurity.

You've never seen Andy Griffith like this, and after this movie, you never would again. Griffith stuck to much safer roles following A Face in the Crowd. His character, Lonesome Rhodes, is volatile, mean, and sexually charged, but also fascinating and magnetic. I would never have guessed that the man who went on to play the beloved sheriff of Mayberry for many successful television seasons had this sort of persona lurking inside.

I was also amazed by the movie's continued relevance after 50 years. With television still a growing phenomenon in the late '50s, this movie was way ahead of its time (a recipe for box-office disaster, I suppose). It put me in mind of such phenomena as (for instance) the influence of Fox News over red state America. Regardless of whether a liberal bias exists in the media, there is no doubt that conservative America gets its opinions from the boob tube, and this movie shows that they have for as long as that medium has existed (remember McCarthy?).

It is a riveting and worthwhile experience for any film buff or student of cultural history, and I'm so pleased it caught my eye when I was checking in the VHS copy at the library earlier this week.

Posted by Jared at February 9, 2007 12:27 PM | TrackBack