Half a century after Elia Kazan made A Face in the Crowd, the performances–by Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, and Anthony Franciosa–are still pungent, the dark tale of media manipulation still resonates, and even fans can't quite define its power.
Made during the middle slumbers of the Eisenhower era, Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd marks its 50th birthday in 2007 and retains its status as one of the most provocative, unplaceable vagrants—or is it mongrels?—of American moviemaking. It's a perennial in-between. It didn't behave then, and it doesn't quite belong now. It has neither indelibly darkened into a lithographic fable, like Charles Laughton's masterwork, The Night of the Hunter, nor faded into parchment. As Richard Schickel observes in his gung-ho biography of Kazan, published in 2005, "The film has never achieved wide popularity, but it has never disappeared, either. It keeps nagging away at us. At some of us, at least." A Face in the Crowdwas and is a satire for the enlightened minority ("some of us, at least") about the threat posed to democracy when TV personalities achieve magnetic sway over the masses and wield their popularity like a whip. If Fascism comes to America, this film suggests, it'll be wearing the friendly, donkey grin of a good ol' boy. Written by Budd Schulberg (who also did the screenplay for Kazan's On the Waterfront), A Face in the Crowd is a dark-hued tall tale about a rough-diamond charismatic—Andy Griffith's singer-joker Lonesome Rhodes—who catapults into national celebrity, only to become the puppet of a populist scheme orchestrated by corporate overlords, who exploit his likability as a lever of social control. Rhodes is no innocent buffoon; he's as cynical as his paymasters. He preys upon the yearnings and insecurities of regular folks and plays them for suckers, until he commits career suicide by open mike, the victim of a "Macaca" moment. A Face in the Crowd might have become an acrid, worrywart exercise in elitist condescension if it hadn't been for the seams-busting acting of Griffith, who unleashes a moody, gutsy force unsuitable for the future sheriff of Mayberry; Patricia Neal, as the film's abused, bruised conscience; Anthony Franciosa, who has the appetite of a gigolo turned jackal; and, gleaming in her screen debut, Lee Remick.