A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957) -A very early look at reality TV

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

In 1957, Arkansas radio producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) has air time to fill. Her radio show, “A Face in the Crowd,” consists of folksy interviews with down-to-earth citizens. One day, Marcia enters a local jailhouse, where she meets Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a loudmouth who has been arrested on disorderly conduct.

At first, Larry wants nothing to do with Marcia, but then he takes a good look at Marcia (who dubs Larry “‘Lonesome’ Rhodes”)  and softens up. The sheriff sweetens the deal by saying that he’ll let Lonesome loose if he’ll cooperate with Marcia.

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Lonesome pulls out his handy guitar and starts improvising some wild blues, and soon Marcia is satisfied that she got what she was looking for. Later, her boss is even more impressed with Lonesome and insists that Marcia track him down. In record time, Lonesome’s charisma turns him into a radio smash, with the local citizenry utterly charmed by Lonesome’s cracker-barrel wisdom.

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But this success ends up having some unfortunate side effects. Lonesome becomes convinced that every idea that pops out of his mouth is pure gold, and heaven help any broadcast executive who dares to suggest otherwise. And Marcia, at first bemused by this hayseed gone successful, realizes she has unloosed a genie she can’t get back in the bottle.

This movie is simply mesmerizing, not the least in the ways it predicts how Madison Avenue would mount ad campaigns that would congratulate TV viewers for being such geniuses in buying their products. The movie’s extended “Vitajex” sequence, in which Lonesome turns around the unsuccessful sales of an “energy pill,” is like a short lesson in modern advertising. The movie’s other eye-popping lesson comes when Lonesome teaches a U.S. Senator how to come across as more personable so that he can win over his TV viewers (this movie came out three years before the Kennedy/Nixon debates).

All of the movie’s performances are sharpened to a fine point. Tony Franciosa, Walter Matthau, Kay Medford, and the rest of the cast are fairly dripping with cynicism but never overplay their hands. Patricia Neal is just as sensuous and winning as she was in The Day The Earth Stood Still and (surprisingly) for similar reasons, as an Everywoman who slowly realizes she’s in over her head.

As for Andy Griffith, he’s as far from likable old Sheriff Taylor as he could get. Lonesome Rhodes is someone with just enough intelligence that, when pushed in the wrong direction, grabs everything he can for himself and leaving unhappiness in his wake. (There might be a reason that Turner Classic Movies broadcast this movie on the same date as President Donald Trump’s inauguration.)

A Face in the Crowd doesn’t quite qualify as film noir — but it’s not for lack of trying.

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