Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) is a radio producer in Arkansas who likes to get amongst the people for her shows, bringing what she regards as authentic American lives to the media, and by extension the wider world. To that end, she has wound up in prison - to interview the prisoners, that is, not because she has broken the law, though when the Sheriff allows her into the cells which are the home to last night's drunk and disorderlies, the men are reluctant to engage with her. That is until she rouses a sleeping man (Andy Griffith) with a guitar, who angrily reacts until he notices she is quite attractive, and becomes intrigued, then happy to perform a few tunes for her microphone, littered with his folksy wisdom which is ideal for her listeners. Perhaps a little too perfect...
When A Face in the Crowd was initially released, it was regarded as one of the most cynical movies out there about how power manipulates the public, yet takes its toll on those wielding it as well, but did anyone much believe it was accurate as to how the real world politics was taking place, or did they simply see it as a takedown of the advertising world, or those showbiz big timers who get too big for their boots? The thought that the President of the United States could be chosen not on their policies (or lack of them), but their media image and empty speeches that made all the right noises without actually getting into specifics was the stuff of scaremongering, assuming you took it seriously at all: was Eisenhower elected this way, for example?
It seemed doubtful, the President must have had some integrity to achieve this position on the world stage, but director Elia Kazan was well noting how the media were leading the national mood, and his screenwriter Budd Schulberg was only too pleased to build a script about the issue that was dripping in pessimism about how he viewed politics turning out in this new age of television personalities. If the celebrities could tell you what to buy, could they tell you what to think as well? That was the dilemma they both researched and came to the conclusion on, that people truly were that easily led when they believed they would get a reward out of following a certain politician, be that socially or financially, or more hopefully, both at once.
What was remarkable about this, well, one of the remarkable elements of a disturbingly prescient film, was that Kazan and Schulberg had previously teamed up on On the Waterfront, an expressly right wing film that justified the informing on those liberals who were blighted with the Hollywood Blacklist and ruining their careers in the process. There were careers ruined here as well, but only in the context of the story, a surprisingly left wing warning from two men who had been on the frontlines of the entertainment industry and all the controversies that involved, not exactly atoning for their guilt, but acknowledging the strengths of image and hidden politics in presenting those who worked in that line. The drifter, renamed Lonesome Rhodes, is given his own radio show, which under the naïve Marcia's guidance operates as a platform for his down home observations and anecdotes to a wider audience, not realising she has spawned a monster.
She realises later, certainly, that just as she was benevolently using Rhodes to further her career as well as his, he has been exploiting not only her but the so-called hicks and rednecks who form his fanbase, the implication being that he will employ this fame to take a shot at running the country once the senator he has been persuaded to advise and back on his television shows has fallen away. Kazan and Schulberg allow the dreadful thought of that to play out on Neal's increasingly harrowed face: by the closing half act she looks like a grieving widow, a terrific performance which matched Griffiths' equally impressive rendering of an absolute egomaniac, so different from his comedy albums and popular sitcom role. But the casting was spot on throughout, everything about A Face in the Crowd convinced, and it is not often a film from the nineteen-fifties appeared to have predicted the political and media landscape of the twenty-first century, yet here we were. By playing his followers as dupes, Rhodes is seen to sow the seeds of his own downfall... but the chance of a comeback remains, as Walter Matthau informs him in a great speech at the end. In 1957, Rhodes' faux pas on an unwittingly revealing broadcast is his undoing, in 2016, it got one man elected as the leader of the free world. Music by Tom Glazer.