A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957)

Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd
Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes: Andy Griffith
Marcia Jeffries: Patricia Neal
Joey DePalma: Anthony Franciosa
Mel Miller: Walter Matthau
Betty Lou Fleckum: Lee Remick
Gen. Haynesworth: Percy Waram
Macey: Paul McGrath
Sen. Worthington Fuller: Marshall Neilan

Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Budd Schulberg
Cinematography: Gayne Rescher, Harry Stradling Sr.  

I don't know if TCM intentionally "counterprogrammed" the Trump inauguration by scheduling Elia Kazan's film about a faux-populist demagogue on the same day as the ceremony, but it sure looks like it, and I approve. Like Trump, A Face in the Crowd's Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes is a product of the media's amoral pursuit of the colorful character, a man lifted to uncommon power by those entertained by the flamboyance and vulgarity. Rhodes (perhaps like Trump) isn't so much the villain of Budd Schulberg's story and screenplay as are his enablers, Marcia Jeffries and Mel Miller, and his exploiters, like Joey DePalma, who enrich themselves while discovering the previously untapped potential of mass media. In 1957, this potential was just beginning to be realized, but 60 years later it had taken a dangerous man to the White House. I don't think Kazan and Schulberg fully realized that possibility, just as Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky didn't fully realize the prescience of Network (Lumet, 1976). Both films should serve as a permanent warning that today's satire is tomorrow's nightmare. A Face in the Crowd is an important film without being a great one. Schulberg's screenplay falls apart in the middle, and the denouement in which Marcia somehow comes to her senses and exposes Rhodes as a fraud is awkward and mechanical, largely because Marcia herself is something of a mechanical character. An actress of considerable skill, Patricia Neal does what she can to make the character live, but the words aren't there in the script to explain why she tolerates Rhodes's fraudulence as long as she does. Walter Matthau and Anthony Franciosa come off a little better because their roles are written as stereotypes: Cynical Writer and Go-getting Hot Shot. So the film really belongs to Andy Griffith, who parlays his dead-eyed shark's grin into something that should have been the foundation of a career with more highlights than a folksy sitcom and an old-fart detective show. It's a charismatic but ragged performance that needed a little more shaping from writer and director, something that Kazan admitted to himself in his diaries when he wrote about Rhodes and the film, "The complexity ... was left out." Rather than having Rhodes revealed as a fraud to his followers, Kazan said, Rhodes should have been allowed to recognize that he had been trapped by his own fraudulence. Deprived of anagnorisis, a moment of tragic self-recognition, Rhodes becomes a figure of melodrama, bellowing "Marcia!" from the balcony at the end but probably fated to make what Miller suggests to him, the comeback of a has-been. Fortunately, Kazan and Schulberg were wise enough to change their original ending, in which Rhodes commits suicide -- there's not enough tragedy in their conception of the character for that.