Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number One


#1 — A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957)
I would like to think that a satire of mass media — of television, in particular — wouldn’t still be pertinent some fifty years later, that five decades of intellectual evolution would have moved United States society past the point where it’s frighteningly susceptible to the sorts of opportunistic charlatans that populate A Face in the Crowd. Instead, the alarming relevance of Elia Kazan’s film has only swelled over the years. The film powerfully portrays genial hucksterism preying on the eager masses and a happily pliable audience ready to buy anything that’s being sold, as long as the pitch is settled in the right sort of homespun wisdom. Play to their good, moral, God-fearing common sense while maybe touching on a fearful nerve or two, and the suckers will follow absolutely anywhere. Indeed, the only part of Kazan’s film that has aged questionably is the end, when comeuppance arrives in the exposure of a core lie and the audience flees. These days the curtain between deceit and truth is in such tatters that successful subterfuge is inconceivable. And yet the assembled nod and cheer like never before. A Face in the Crowd isn’t cynical enough.

There’s an intriguing added layer to A Face in the Crowd, a bit of retroactive meta commentary that stems from the actor recruited to play lead character Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes. Andy Griffith was already a successful comic monologuist and Tony Award-nominated stage performer when he made his film debut as Rhodes, but his most famous work was ahead of him. Three years after this film was released, Griffith would start portraying small town sheriff Andy Taylor on television, and it’s difficult to view A Face in the Crowd with seeing the dappled colors cast backward by that prism. It becomes all too enticing to view the bulk of Griffith’s career as a version of the trickery plied by Rhodes and his team, feel good bumpkinism cooked up to win mass appeal while behind the scenes everyone counted money. I don’t actually think Griffith or anyone associated with the show that bore his name were actually as manipulative as that (the later Matlock may very well have been pure calculation). That the remainder of Griffith’s career rouses suspicion at all is less an indictment of him and more of a marker as to how effective he is as Rhodes. Griffith is savage in his forcefulness and surgical in his ability to slip from genial folksiness to black-eyed, mercenary chill. He’s perfectly teamed with Patricia Neal, playing the radio producer who effectively discovers Rhodes and serves as his manager on his climb to national stardom. Neal is the barometer of her charge’s blackening soul, initially charmed and impressed by him before growing ever more troubled as his influence grows. Neal’s ability to ground a performance in a subdued, naturalistic emotional honesty is precisely what’s needed against the raging tempest of Griffith’s work.

Working from a script by his On the Waterfront collaborator Budd Schulberg (the screenplay is based on Schulberg’s short story Your Arkansas Traveler), Kazan is at his most pointed and purposeful here. The stage whisper of sanctimony that sometimes dogs his other work is entirely absent. Even though the film has a clear point of view, Kazan presents the material as an exploration rather than an indictment. Maybe his gavel hand was stilled by an awareness of his own culpability as one who cunningly dictated to audiences, as any skilled film director must. Or perhaps Kazan felt a deeper empathy with those who let their political passions circle them away from a stable center, making him reluctant to cast too much fault on anyone, regardless of the side of the camera on which they resided. Then again, all that dollar bin psychology may offer no insight as to artistic purpose. The distinctive achievement of A Face in the Crowd may be nothing more than focused artistry naturally combined with the necessary fortuitous kismet to shift an accomplished film to the level of masterwork. No matter how it got to its finished form, A Face in the Crowd is a stunning, thrilling, sharply modern work.

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