My brother gifted me a one-year subscription to the Criterion Channel for Christmas, and since I was stuck in bed with a nasty cold all day, I decided to finally make use of it—starting with a screening of Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd.
Andy Griffith, here making his feature film debut, positively ignites the screen as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a charismatic drifter that unexpectedly rockets to superstardom following a fateful man-on-the-street (or, in this case, “man-in-a-drunk-tank”) radio interview. From hosting hokey variety shows on television to masterminding advertising campaigns for multimillion-dollar corporations to rubbing elbows with influential politicians, nothing can stop his meteoric rise—and the farther he gets from his humble beginnings, the more ruthless he becomes. Eventually, his transparent lust for fame and power even alienates Patricia Neal’s Marcia Jeffries, the plucky reporter that discovered him and nurtured his “redneck guru” persona. Like Citizen Kane, A Face in the Crowd is a deliciously dark deconstruction of the American Dream; rags-to-riches stories are lovely in theory, but in reality, the privileged few that manage to make such a transition rarely reach the other side with an intact moral compass.
It’s worth noting that modern viewers might find Kazan’s frank depiction of racial inequality to be mildly… off-putting: the county lockup glimpsed in the opening scene, for example, is segregated, with the African-American prisoners separated into a significantly smaller cell. Rest assured, you’re supposed to feel uncomfortable; A Face in the Crowd forces the audience to confront a grave injustice that was, at the time, tragically commonplace. For a movie produced in 1957, the social commentary is particularly scathing.