438) A Face in the Crowd (1957) Dir: Elia Kazan Date Released: May 1957 Date Seen: December 8, 2009 Rating: 4.5/5
If there's only one iconic image in Elia Kazan's screen adaptation of Budd Schulberg's A Face in the Crowd, it's the one where demagogue-in-the-making Lonesome Rhodes (a devastating Andy Griffith) waves goodbye to the residents of a small town in Arkansas as his train leaves the station and he sets out for his bright future as a silver-tongued king-maker. The town is all there to see him go, from the little boy that needs to be restrained by a concerned father figure to the local high school band. Armed with his woodsy, straight-shooting act, Rhodes's got them eating out of the palm of his hands and they're practically weeping as he waves emphatically to them from the boxcar. From Kazan, an immigrant whose empathy for the blue-collar outsider bled through all of his best pictures, that seemingly pristine display of Americana on the train platform is barbed and coated in poison. They're so pitilessly giddy that they're more like a group of children that just found out that they're off to the ice cream parlor and then the toy store than a cross-section of middle Americans. If Rhodes can hustle them into becoming a churlish caricature of chipper, all-American everyday folks, he's won because he's effectively transformed real people into his performance.
Kazan does not linger on that scene because its the pinnacle of his disappointment in the vast, amorphous blob of citizens that want the Great American Swindle more than they want the disappointing but very real truth. He doesn't use the scene to gloat but instead to show briefly the lows people can sink to when they're desperate to believe in a snake oil salesman like Rhodes. Which isn't to say that he and Schullberg are not also disgusted and more than a little condescending when they want to be, as in the acerbic scene where Rhodes judges a group of baton-twirling, high-kicking group of short skirts, I mean cheerleaders. That scene is about as mean as the pair get, a subversive parody of the over-sexed lust for fame that's come to define the female image in American culture.
Ultimately, however, we're left with that hard-to-swallow ending where Rhodes gets his and is shown to categorically fail as we're left wondering if he'll jump from his high tower into the bustling traffic below now that he knows he can't get what he assumed he always had. It's a heckuva hard line, one that Kazan and Schullberg drive home with such force as to leave no doubt as to where their sympathies ultimately lie. They hate Rhodes the monster because he's the one that manipulates the medium (television), not the other way around. In that sense, A Face in the Crowd is a fantasy borne of disappointment that seeks to console its viewers with the promise that the bad guys can be beaten at their own game, no matter how Pollyannaish that bottom line may be.