Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Elia Kazan, I should state, is not one of my favorite directors. That is to say, his films do not draw me to them because of his name alone. Nothing about his style, or his technique, or even his common themes, draw me to his work consistently. Because Kazan's style is so strong, I find it hard to be indifferent to his work the way I would with an ordinary, pedestrian filmmaker. With Kazan, one could say you either love him or hate him.

Without wishing to sound uncommitted, I would say there are certain Kazan films I admire for what they are. His adaptation of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" is a nice adaptation of the book, which I enjoy. "A Streetcar Named Desire" is a fine filming of that Tennessee Williams play, and introduced the Method acting of Marlon Brando. "Baby Doll" is as bizarre a film as you're likely to see. And my personal favorite of Kazan's films is the wonderfully atmospheric "On the Waterfront", which I admit I love for purely personal reasons-my grandfather worked in the docks of Baltimore City in the same type of environment at the time the film was made, and it is strongly reminscent of the descriptions he gave of the days and nights working on the waterfront.

To my list of Kazan films that I enjoyed, I can now add the most recent film I have watched, "A Face in the Crowd", one of those indictments of mass media (especially television) that was so popular in the 1950s. With it's no-holds-barred approach to expose style filmmaking, "A Face in the Crowd" tells the story of Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith, in a career-defining performance), an ex-con and guitar picker who finds himself a huge superstar overnight thanks to some appearances on local radio and television. As his fame increases, he hurts those around him and sinks into a decay of booze, drugs and sex.

The casting of this film is quite interesting. Andy Griffith portrays the disgusting, crude Rhodes, and Patricia Neal is the woman who loves him. We have the screen debut of Lee Remick as Griffith's teenage bride, and Walter Matthau in an early role as the introspective TV producer. That fine silent film director Marshall Neilan even turns up in a supporting role as a Senator who takes Griffith under his wing. It is interesting to see Griffith in this brilliant performance before he became typecast as Andy of Mayberry and Matlock. He proves himself one of the finest actors of his generation, along with Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Ernest Borgnine.

The film moves at a good pace, bridged by fades, and really paints a believable image of Griffith's rise to fame within the story. Too often, "rise to fame" sequences are handled with a montage of screaming fans and newspaper headlines, but this film does an excellent job of making it believable and interesting. Griffith's character becomes a beloved teddy bear persona, but holds his many adoring fans beneath contempt (this proves to be his downfall). The film is rather unclear about who precisely is at fault here-on the one hand, the media is blamed as a corrupting influence, but at the same time, the adoring fans are seen as being somewhat stupid, easily-led sheep.

As always in my reviews, I don't want to harp on the story. I encourage viewers to seek the film out and watch it for themselves. I tend to focus on the film in the context of the "bigger picture", as it were. "A Face in the Crowd" reminded me, in a roundabout way, of "Sweet Smell of Success", another 1957 picture that demonized the power and corruption of the media. In the 1950s, there was clearly a sort of paranoia about the power of the media, and part of that may have been due to the increasing competition between the film and television mediums. I'm reminded of the scene in Douglas Sirk's "All that Heaven Allows" in which Jane Wyman, in an effort to emphasize her character's lonliness and sense of isolation, is presented with a brand new TV set as a present. In another prophetic moment in "A Face in the Crowd", Griffith develops a "reaction machine" consisting of playback options of canned laughter, applause, etc. This immediately calls to mind the scene in "Annie Hall" were Woody Allen admonishes Tony Roberts for using such a machine to bump up the laughs on his sitcom.

"A Face in the Crowd" holds up quite well today. It may very well be required viewing for anyone studying popular presentations of American media, along with such films as "Network", "All the President's Men", "Sweet Smell of Success", "His Girl Friday", and "Ace in the Hole".

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