July 2, 2019  (Web Review)

A Face in the Crowd

Criterion, 126 min., not rated, DVD: $29.99, Blu-ray: $39.99

Reviewer rating: 3.5/4

Andy Griffith was a veritable TV institution as the single father who delivered folksy wisdom in the 1960s rural sitcom The Andy Griffith Show, but the comedian-turned-actor played a much more sinister role in his 1957 feature film debut, playing Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a drifter and laid-back guitar picker whose charm (which he turns on like a light switch) is captured by a radio producer (Patricia Neal) who discovers him in a county jail. She knows a good thing when she sees it and gives him a regular radio show, where his down-home wit and personable manner delivers him ever larger audiences until he finally lands a national TV series. But behind the friendly façade of a hillbilly folk singer is a cynical, ruthlessly ambitious man who uses his platform for power and political influence. Director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who collaborated on On the Waterfront, reunited for this prescient look at populism, media demagoguery, and politics in the TV era, serving up a savage commentary as Rhodes shapes his public persona of rising politician and becomes brazenly contemptuous of the gullible public. The performances are superb and the themes are just as timely today. Anthony Franciosa and Walter Matthau costar and Lee Remick makes her film debut as a dizzy cheerleader who becomes Rhodes’s child bride. A Face in the Crowd was a financial flop on its initial release but has since been embraced as a classic and was added to the National Film Registry in 2008. Extras include new interviews with Kazan biographer Ron Briley and Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith, the 2005 making-of documentary “Facing the Past” (featuring actors Griffith, Neal, and Franciosa, as well as Schulberg, and film scholars Leo Braudy and Jeff Young), and a booklet. Highly recommended. (S. Axmaker)