“A Face in the Crowd,” a dark satire on media and politics, becomes timelier with each passing year. As we watch candidates begin their race for the presidency well before the gun has even been fired, its relevancy becomes all the more apparent.
The film stars Andy Griffith in his feature film role, but this isn’t Griffith we came to love as the good hearted sheriff of Mayberry in “The Andy Griffith Show” and later as the good hearted lawyer “Matlock.” In “A Face in the Crowd” Griffith was given the opportunity to show his darker side.
As the film opens Griffith seems to be in familiar territory as a sweet, but naïve country bumpkin, whose singing and charisma catch the attentions of a TV producer (Patricia Neal). Griffith become the star of a popular TV show and with the popularity comes power. Naturally his new found power corrupts. Soon Griffith’s clout in the world of television makes him a valuable asset to political candidates who see him as a way to the average man’s vote.
The corrupting influence of power is hardly a new concept, but Kazan (“On the Waterfront”) crafted an eerily prophetic film about the ever-blurring worlds of entertainment and politics. Made in the early years of television, the film saw that this new medium was, for better or quite possibly worse, the future.
“A Face in the Crowd” also features an early performance from Walter Matthau as one TV producers to make Griffith a star only to watch in horror at the monster he becomes. Matthau’s sardonic delivery is showcased well here and steals several scenes, but this is Griffth’s film.
Griffith, in a brilliant performance that he never matched, becomes a cold, calculating megalomaniac using his charm to manipulate all around him. Watching him switch from a man of the people when the camera is rolling to oozing contempt for his audience once the camera is off is chilling, perhaps all the more so since Griffith is forever associated with his nice guy personas.
In perhaps the film’s most powerful scene Griffith is shown couching politicians on how to play to the camera and win audiences. For modern viewers who know what television has done to the election process it is an unsettling scene that reveals a film that truly was ahead of its time. Still fresh and important today, “A Face Crowd” is an unseen classic, that isn’t easy to find, but worth seeking out.