Thursday, October 29, 2009

Face In the Crowd

(Elia Kazan, 1957)
A visionary fusion of social-commentary pic and farce, styled for the new age of television. I admit I did not imagine Andy Griffith capable of such a charismatic, impassioned performance as down-home Arkansas demagogue Lonesome Rhodes, whose jailhouse radio interview sets him on his archetypal rags-to-riches way. But while he starts by broadcasting home truths to housewives and ends by asking where that "uncomplicated unliberated woman" has gone, he's no more of a swindler at the end than he was at the start - he's just playing for bigger stakes. What has changed is that his main audience is now the sponsor instead of the listener; so where he once used his perch to get even at the sheriff he's now using it to suck up to the senator, and where he once required an audience, now he's got sycophants and canned applause. Everyone else is playing an angle as well - even Walter Matthau's truth-teller gets a piece with his tell-all book deal. At first the satire is so broad, with listeners playing Pavlovian dog to Rhodes' every suggestion, that it seems like the truth value will be undermined by the cynicism. But that's before the indescribably bravura Vitajex promo sequence takes broad to a whole new level: after that the film becomes an all-over-the-map fusion of classical drama, self-reflexive burlesque, and fearless carnal showmanship. From the down-home baton twirl, to the expiry of the sweaty account executive, to the single desperate gasp Patricia Neal makes when Griffith leaves her apartment, to Griffith's hopeless assault on the pointedly black servants who will no longer do his bidding, every moment is intensely complex and fully realized. And as Lonesome Rhodes yowls into the night and Matthau delivers his closing remarks, you can't help but feel that the whole cacophonous ordeal can also be read as the flipside of director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg's "On The Waterfront" - a final and unanswerable repudiation of the ultimate hick demagogue turned media darling, Mr. Joseph McCarthy himself.

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