A Face in the Crowd

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Drama;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa, Lee Remick.

Lucking out with a good fourth-row seat in mid-auditorium, I was there for 1971’s opening showing at the Museum of Modern Art’s Elia Kazan retrospective, when the director who’d made an unbroken 1954-69 string of movies that I love introduced his personal pick for the launch. It was 1957’s A Face in the Crowd, which Kazan’s On the Waterfront colleague Budd Schulberg had adapted from one of his own short stories, a script to which its eventual director gave co-equal status. And it was an interesting choice because the picture had been a flop at the time, both with critics and public, though even in ’71, you could feel that the tide had already turned in favor of this warning shot about how broadcast mass media might soon be able to “package” political candidates the way Madison Avenue had done for antacid TV spots.

Richard Nixon, whose name rates a brief mention in Crowd, was already president — and though Nixon was about as much of a television natural as (on a contrasting decibel level) William Jennings Bryan, the conceit that you could jerry-build a presidential timber out of a TV background had gained ground. Mother of God and father of Ivanka, has it ever.

As a result, either Crowd or Network (and for not dissimilar reasons) is the most prescient of all American movies, though that’s an adjective critic April Wolfe actively shies away from in an outstanding Criterion essay because, as she notes, America had long seen a mingling of entertainers with the political class. Think of, for one, Will Rogers — who was one of the acknowledged influences on Crowd’s “Lonesome Rhodes” character, though I’ve always had a tough time reconciling the Rhodes malevolence here with the droll senior of easygoing John Ford comedies.

But with a dash of Elvis thrown in — due exclusively to the manner in which teenaged girls go into sexual frenzy over Lonesome’s guitar strumming — the subject most vividly brings to mind is the once ubiquitous workhorse Arthur Godfrey. Now almost totally forgotten, Godfrey was a Hall of Fame carbuncle and anti-semite who at one time hosted two primetime TV shows and a weekday radio/TV simulcast when he wasn’t firing talent demeaningly referred to by him as “Little Godfrey’s.” There’s also a dash here, in Lonesome’s ability to manufacture headlines, of real-life newscaster Walter Winchell — another windy Big Shot who eventually fell from grace, though any roman a clef linkage is defused some by Winchell’s cameo as himself in this movie.

So the deal is this. A rarely better Patricia Neal plays an outwardly mature young woman who left rural Arkansas to attend Sarah Lawrence and then came back to work for her uncle’s radio station in, from outer appearances, a burg largely populated by dogs. One guesses that she must have a really interesting backstory, but the story concentrates on her discovery of a rough gem in the local hoosegow (Andy Griffith). Tape-recording the mostly harmless hoboes behind bars for a human-interest story, she discovers Griffith’s Rhodes character presumably sleeping one off in what looks like the oversized cell’s drunk-and-disorderly nook. And despite these unlikely origins, Lonesome is full of aggressively spouted cornpone homilies, knows how to fake “pickin’” and has a sexual magnetism a lot of women find attractive — something that’s going to get Neal in trouble down the road. One can’t say enough about the actress’s characterization here (which was ignored by the Academy) and the way that Neal can go from borderline plain to sexy practically from scene to scene.

This was Griffith’s screen debut feature — he made surprisingly few big-screen appearances — and he gives one of the two performances from Kazan’s screen prime (the other is Pat Hingle in Splendor in the Grass) that I always thought the director might have toned down some. Overall, though, time has caught up with it almost as much as it has with the picture, and you can now make a case that the Griffith/Rhodes broadness is no more extreme than what we see coming out of the White House everyday. First-timers to Crowd may find it a bit disconcerting to see the Pride of Mayberry from “The Andy Griffith Show” as a demagogue. It’s a little like seeing visual proof that Aunt Bea once worked the red-light district.

As for the rest of a hand-picked cast, Anthony Franciosa’s congenital oiliness is better suited to his on-the-make agent here than in, say, The Long, Hot Summer from the same period; Walter Matthau is a reflective intellectual (“Vanderbilt, ’44” — with a pipe) and not the sardonic scowl he later became; and Lee Remick (her screen debut) is a majorette who captures Lonesome’s eye enough to become his wife despite an ex all ready to go to Confidential magazine to spill old marital beans if our boy doesn’t come through with a payoff after becoming a network sensation. The Neal character can’t help herself from falling for Lonesome herself and spends a lot of lonely nights on the road promoting his professional cause — except for the times he “drops in” when he can’t find anyone else. He’s insecure enough to know that on some level, he needs her.

The movie’s satirical high point, then and now, is the uproarious New York “agency” material — crasser than anything in “Mad Men” but also (and accurately) dealing with a caliber of TV commercial that were already pretty risible as early as 1960 and likely would have been too crude for much of the “MM” era, which more or less came in with JFK. Owned by a Koch Brother type known as “The General,” Lonesome’s sponsor is something called Vitajex — caffeine-heavy snake oil that brings to mind Geritol, which sponsored the infamous quiz show “Twenty-One” and “The Lawrence Welk Show.” But whereas Welk promised little more than perhaps a little more pop in your polka, Vitajex all but promises you more sexual partners than Wilt Chamberlain.

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These scenes are crucial because they segue into The General’s promoting of a nondescript white-haired old California senator into a presidential run. It is here that Rhodes, brought in as a consultant, mandates using Madison Avenue techniques to “sell” the product on the star’s TV show, a faux cracker-barrel affair where so-called plain folks sit around and jawbone about current events between chaws. Like everything and almost everyone involved in this phony enterprise, you can all but hear the actors counting down the time until the cameras go off so that they can finally ask, “Where are the broads?” The senator, by the way, is played by silent filmmaker Marshall Neilan (a year before his death) following years in limbo after torching his career by making an enemy of Louis B. Mayer. (Gotta love him for that.) I don’t know who got the brainstorm to cast Neilan, but he is bullseye here.

The Criterion bonus extras are illuminating, as they especially need to be on a movie like this, and do not shy away from Kazan’s somewhat delayed pariah status from having not only named names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities but then took an ad out in the New York Times defending the action. Schulberg cooperated as well but didn’t rub people’s faces in it as much, though there’s a part of me that admires — probably against my better judgment — the way Kazan held a decades-long grudge against his perceived artistic inferiors in the Communist Party who were trying to horn in his work. It brings to mind Humphrey Bogart’s comment about how the greatest thing about being successful is that you can tell people you don’t like to go to hell.

In any event, interviewed historian Ron Briley (The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan) strengthens the undeniable case that Kazan’s work got better and more committed after the HUAC blow-up, while an excellent 2005 featurette doc is carried over from the old Warner DVD release, which this 4K transfer puts very much in the shade. (Though I wouldn’t rate Crowd as one of the more interestingly shot movies of Kazan’s career). In addition to Wolfe’s beauty of an essay, there’s a lengthy excerpt from Kazan’s introduction to the published Crowd screenplay from 1957, as well as the same year’s New York Times profile on Griffith. Also interviewed on camera is Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith (as personable as Briley), whose biographical backgrounding intensifies the oft-told stories of just how much this project took out of a performer who’s previously been a kind of standup comic monologuist. Griffith used to say that it took three months to shoot Crowd and four for him to get over it, but I have a feeling that the latter period was longer.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Face in the Crowd’ and ‘Tarantula’

Criterion April 2019 Slate Includes ‘A Face in the Crowd,’ ‘Stranger Than Paradise’

The Criterion Collection’s slate of DVD and Blu-ray releases for April 2019 includes A Face in the Crowd, My Brilliant Career, Diamonds of the Night, Night on Earth, Stranger Than Paradise and a double-feature of Jackie Chan’s “Police Story” movies.

Due on Blu-ray April 9 is director Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1991), which features a talented international cast (including Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Beatrice Dalle, and Roberto Benigni) for this quintet of transitory tales of urban displacement and existential angst, all staged as encounters between cabbies and their fares. The Blu-ray includes a high-definition digital restoration, supervised and approved by Jarmusch, with a 2.0 surround DTS-HD master audio soundtrack. Extras include selected-scene commentary from 2007 featuring director of photography Frederick Elmes and location sound mixer Drew Kunin; a Q&A with Jarmusch from 2007, in which he responds to questions sent in by fans; a Belgian television interview with Jarmusch from 1992; and a booklet featuring essays by authors and critics Thom Andersen, Paul Auster, Bernard Eisenschitz, Goffredo Fofi, and Peter von Bagh, and the lyrics to Tom Waits’s original songs from the film.

Also due April 9 on Blu-ray is Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise (1984), in which Jarmusch follows rootless Hungarian émigré Willie (John Lurie), his pal Eddie (Richard Edson), and his visiting 16-year-old cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) as they drift from New York’s Lower East Side to the snowy expanses of Lake Erie and the drab beaches of Florida, always managing to make the least of wherever they end up. The film is structured as a series of master-shot vignettes etched in black and white by cinematographer Tom DiCillo. The Blu-ray includes a high-definition digital restoration, supervised and approved by Jarmusch, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Extras include Permanent Vacation (1980), Jarmusch’s first full-length feature, presented in a high-definition digital restoration supervised by the director; Kino ’84: Jim Jarmusch, a 1984 German television program featuring interviews with cast and crew from Stranger Than Paradise and Permanent Vacation; Some Days in January, 1984, a behind-the-scenes Super 8 film by Tom Jarmusch; U.S. and Japanese trailers; and a booklet featuring Jarmusch’s 1984 “Some Notes on Stranger Than Paradise,” critics Geoff Andrew and J. Hoberman on Stranger Than Paradise, and author and critic Luc Sante on Permanent Vacation.

Coming April 16 will be Diamonds of the Night (1964). Adapted from a novel by Arnost Lustig and directed by Jan Němec, Diamonds of the Night closely tracks two boys who escape from a concentration-camp transport and flee into the surrounding woods, a hostile terrain where the brute realities of survival coexist with dreams, memories and fragments of visual poetry. The Blu-ray and DVD editions will include a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray, and a new English subtitle translation. Extras include a 2009 interview with Němec; A Loaf of Bread, Němec’s 1960 student thesis film, based on a short story by Lustig; a new interview with film programmer Irena Kovarova; Arnost Lustig Through the Eyes of Jan Němec, a short documentary on Lustig from 1993; a new video essay on the film’s stylistic influences by scholar James Quandt; and an essay by film critic Michael Atkinson.

Directed by Elia Kazan, A Face in the Crowd (1957) chronicles the rise and fall of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a boisterous entertainer who shoots to the heights of television stardom and political demagoguery. The special-edition Blu-ray and DVD arrives April 23 with a new 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray. Extras include a new interview with Ron Briley, author of The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan; a new interview with Andy Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith; the 2005 documentary Facing the Past; the film’s trailer; an essay by critic April Wolfe; and a 1957 New York Times Magazine profile of Andy Griffith.

Due April 30 is a double feature of the Hong Kong action series “Police Story” starring Jackie Chan, featuring Police Story (1985) and Police Story 2 (1988). The two-disc DVD and three-disc Blu-ray sets include new 4K digital restorations; alternate 5.1 surround and English-dubbed soundtracks for both films; new English subtitle translations; and the Hong Kong-release version of Police Story 2, presented in a high-definition digital transfer for the first time. Extras include new programs on Chan’s screen persona and action-filmmaking techniques featuring author and New York Asian Film Festival cofounder Grady Hendrix; archival interviews with Chan and actor and stuntman Benny Lai; a television program from 1964 detailing the rigors of Peking-opera training, akin to the education that Chan received as a child; a Chan stunt reel; trailers; and an essay by critic Nick Pinkerton.

Also due April 30 is My Brilliant Career (1979), the award-winning breakthrough film of director Gillian Armstrong, who drew on teenage author Miles Franklin’s novel, a celebrated turn-of-the-twentieth-century Australian coming-of-age story, to brashly upend the conventions of period romance. The Blu-ray and DVD editions feature a new 2K digital restoration approved by the director, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray. Extras include a 2009 audio commentary featuring Armstrong; a new interview with Armstrong; a 1980 interview with actor Judy Davis; a new interview with production designer Luciana Arrighi; the film’s trailer; and an essay by critic Carrie Rickey.