A FACE IN THE CROWD
Review by Gordon Justesen
Griffith, Patricia Neal, Anthony Franciosa, Walter Matthau, Lee Remick
Director: Elia Kazan
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 126 Minutes
Release Date: April 23, 2019
“This whole country’s just like my flock of sheep!”
Elia Kazan certainly made some classic films in his career. Most notable among these films are On the Waterfront, East of Eden and A Streetcar Named Desire. His singular masterpiece, though, came in the form of a work that was largely ignored at the time of release and yet was also way ahead of its time.
A Face in the Crowd, released in 1957, is a work of great importance. What Kazan and screenwriter Burt Schulberg had crafted in terms of how the media and politics influence one another has never been more relevant than it is today. It’s not just Kazan’s greatest work, but his most prophetic as well.
The film depicts the unlikely rise to fame of a boisterous small town southern drunk named Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith). He is discovered by radio producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) while he’s in jail for drunken behavior. But he does carry something of an entertaining quality, one that Marcia sees as a unique radio personality.
As time goes on, Rhodes does gain a significant amount of fame, not to mention a huge following. He also attracts the attention of political personalities and advertisers, both of whom see him as the perfect outlet to push whatever they want to sell, be it a product or agenda. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for Rhodes to develop a huge ego and feel he can sway the country whichever way he wishes, conning them every step of the way behind the camera.
Who knew in 1957 that this same scenario would resurface in real life in both politicians and entertainment personalities. When we have the likes of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump coming into politics after dabbling in entertainment, as well as Bill Clinton (a southern man who has a way with words), Kazan’s film has come to vivid life on more than one occasion. Perhaps the best example of a real life Lonesome Rhodes is the despicable radio personality/conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, but the less said about him, the better.
Like many, I knew of Andy Griffith simply from his classic TV show, which I still revisit every so often. I had no idea that he made his acting debut by playing such a detestable lout. Griffith is nothing short of remarkable in the role of Lonesome Rhodes, delivering a side of him that I never knew existed, incorporating a manic howl of a laugh that will stay with you long after the film ends.
A Face in the Crowd may have flopped and gotten completely ignored at the time of its release, but it has truly left a mark on the cinematic landscape as well as forseen the future in terms of how the media and politics manipulate one another. For me, that is far more important than any sort of financial grosses. And if there’s a more perfect time to discover this one of a kind gem, that time is now.
There’s nothing quite like a forgotten classic getting the best absolute treatment like the one supplied here by Criterion. The 4K mastering job is flat out gorgeous, making the Black and White picture truly shine as a result. The black levels come off with enormous depth, as does the overall picture. Many of the images that Elia Kazan brings to life in the film are some of the best I’ve ever seen brought to life in a Black and White film, and Criterion has enhanced beautifully.
Though a mono mix, the sound is nonetheless delivered in an effective manner. Dialogue is the key ingredient here, and every bit of it is heard in pure top-notch form! Crisp and clear delivery is at the forefront of this impressive presentation from Criterion!
Criterion’s release includes some remarkably informative extras, starting with an interview with author Ron Briley about the career of Elia Kazan, as well as an interview with Andy Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith regarding the actor’s legacy. We also get “Facing the Past”, a terrific documentary about the film that features interviews with stars Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Anthony Franciosa, screenwriter Budd Schulberg and film scholars Leo Braudy and Jeff Young. Lastly, we get a trailer and a fantastic insert booklet featuring an essay by April Wolfe, as well as excerpts from Elia Kazan’s introduction the film’s published screenplay and a 1957 profile of Andy Griffith from The New York Times Magazine.
A Face in the Crowd is Elia Kazan’s true filmmaking masterpiece. The idea may have been too much for audiences to accept in 1957, but with the way politics and the media have intertwined in the years since, the film is more relevant that ever! The Criterion Blu-ray release is unquestionably a must own release!