02 July 2008

Demagogue in Denim

Elia Kazan directed one of the great monster movies of the 1950's. It was A Face in the Crowd (1957) starring an Andy Griffith who bears little resemblance to the popular sheriff from Mayberry that he would start portraying three years later.

A Face in the Crowd tells the story of an Arkansas drifter who's discovered in jail where he is serving a sentence for public drunkenness. His folksy yet super energized guitar-playing, folk singing, aw shucks style of wisdom instantly endears him to radio audiences. He quickly goes from local radio to Memphis TV station to national audience and the ears of not only the masses but national movers and shakers as well. But behind the charm and good looks lies a beast who feeds off adulation and power, growing ever bigger and more menacing. The fate of the monster in A Face in the Crowd will be familiar to movie audiences. It comes when he is on the cusp of a possible cabinet post where his belief in controlling the masses would surely be used to devastating effect.

This is an amazing performance by Griffith. He had to be bombastic, audacious and egomanical without lapsing into farce. It was Griffith's film debut and one wonders if audiences were better off with him on TV being affable or if they'd have benefited more from him staying in films taking on a variety of personas.

A Face in the Crowd, like other monster movies, was a cautionary tale. It presaged how TV could aid and abet political cults of personality that in turn can verge on demagoguery. A Face in the Crowd belongs in the same conversation with Sidney Lumet's Network (1976) and Spike Lee's Bamboozled (2000). All are brilliant exposés on how television can pervert culture (reality shows often serve the same purpose, if unintentionally).

Patricia Neal plays the local radio show host who discovers Griffith's character, Lonesome Rhodes, and lovingly guides and follows him to the top. At first glance she may appear to be the creator of this monster, but it is clear that this creature merely feeds off a decaying culture and the minions who seek wisdom and leadership however it comes. (Says Rhodes: I'm stupid but the people are stupider and they need me to tell em what to do.)

A young Walter Matthau plays a writer who quickly sees through Rhodes and pens an exposé, "Demagogue in Denim."  He is smart, cynical and even predicts the monster's return, albeit in a weaker form. He is also aware that others will spring up to take his place. The real mad scientist is Joey DePalma, played by Anthony Franciosa, also in his film debut. DePalma is the slimy agent who's unspoken philosophy is, "anything for a buck." He does in fact state: "Illegal? Honey, nothing's illegal if they don't catch you!"

A Face in the Crowd is a revelation. Though TCM recently aired it as part of its Essentials series, it remains a vastly under appreciated film that could easily be included in any course on American history, politics or culture through film. But in my mind it's a classic... MONSTER FLICK!

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