I'm a fan of classic films, and becoming more so all the time, but don't really have much of a collection at home. I generally see these movies on AMC or TCM (e-i-e-i-o). I don't often plan my viewing ahead, but come on these films in a haphazard way while channel surfing before bed or on Saturday mornings... in other words, when I'm alone. My wife benignly tolerates my habit, though she doesn't share it (she mystifyingly fails to appreciate John Wayne) but the kids go into full moan - complete with eye-rolling - any time they come into the room and see me watching anything in black-and-white. Sometimes the movie wins, and sometimes the moaning wins, depending on how committed I am to the particular film at the moment. I very often end up seeing the first half, or the last third, or some other fraction of the movie. I might or might not see the rest of it later - hence the nature of these reviews.
I must point out, too, that these are reviews only in the academic sense... I viewed the movie (or most of it) and I'm writing about it. In no sense do I pretend to know what I'm talking about.
It happens that I caught most of Elia Kazan's A Face In The Crowd last Saturday. Released in 1957, it stars Andy Griffith in his first screen role, along with Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau. I have been aware of the film for a long time, and its bona fide status as an American classic, so I took the opportunity to watch.
Griffith plays "Lonesome" Rhodes, a shady Arkansas drifter with a gift for manipulation. In truth, he is a charming sociopath. He loathes everyone, including himself, but recognizes the usefulness of some relationships and enjoys using his power of persuasion. He figures that if anyone is fool enough to treat him well, he will let them, and will bite the hand that feeds whenever it suits his purpose or his mood. He is discovered in Piggott*, Arkansas by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), a local radio personality looking for interesting stories. She is taken with him, persuades him to perform on the air, and this is the beginning of his meteoric rise to fame, fortune and power. Marcia remains a love interest and private sounding board throughout, and might be the only person he grants a measure of genuine, human respect.
Having seen the last act previously, after about - well 2/3 of the movie - I acquiesced to the howls of protest and relinquished the remote. Suffice to say (as anyone could guess) that the wheels come off Rhodes career at some point, and things come to a kind of smoking ruin. It is a morality play, after all.
For those who know Griffith only from his television work, his performance here will make you squirm in your seat. He is crude, creepy (and sweaty) and commands the screen with a thoroughly believable megalomania. His cruel, braying laugh out to make the hair stand on the neck of any decent sort of person.
Patricia Neal is well cast, and gives a pretty seamless performance as a naive but ambitious Arkansas girl. I don't find her exactly sympathetic, though this might just be me. I have never found Neal that compelling to watch. All the ingredients are there, and by the numbers she ought to be attractive and intriguing enough... but the whole package just never comes together for me. She never fails to register more than a shrug. Some performers are just that way, I guess, and where I can at least tolerate Neal, I can't stand to watch Barbara Stanwyck for more than a few minutes in anything.
Matthau's Mel Miller, Marcia's friend and would-be paramour, is world-weary and affable, talented but unambitious, reliable but reticent. The closest thing to a likeable character in the whole enterprise.
Kazan is a brilliant filmmaker, and manipulates the audience as well as the main character manipulates his. Lighting, editing, camera angles, clever visual metaphor, it's all there. If you consider this film along with Kazan's On The Waterfront, they make an interesting glimpse into the 1950's world of media and politics with which Kazan was too familiar... he was blacklisted in Hollywood after his perceived cooperation with Joe McCarthy's House Committee on Un-American Activities. I wonder when someone will make a movie about Kazan?
This is one of those films that one feels obligated to see based only on cultural relevance and artistic merit. I can't say it is a pleasure to watch, but DO watch it. I generally don't care for movies in which I can't relate strongly to some character... Matthau would be it, I suppose, but he is no hero. He is not entirely sullied (though not entirely innocent, he profits from Rhodes in his turn) but he is jaded and ineffectual.
This movie is not about having a nice time for a couple of hours. It's more like taking medicine. That said, it is worth watching, especially during an election year.
*I have actually been to Piggott, Arkansas more than once, having dated a Piggott girl for a while. Northeast Arkansas is familiar territory, which makes the movie's first act even creepier for me.