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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: A Face in the Crowd

“Escape Room” and "Destroyer" are also new to Blu-Ray this week.

Anyone who knows actor Andy Griffith from TV reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show” or “Matlock,” put your memories of him as a genteel, dignified southerner out of your head right now. Sure, in Elia Kazan’s 1957 masterpiece “A Face in the Crowd,” which is getting a Criterion Collection release this week, Griffith plays another southerner. This one goes by the name Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes. Much like his TV counterparts, this Griffith character is as southern as mama’s fried chicken with a drawl like sweet molasses who dispenses his folksy, down home country wisdom to anyone within ear shot. Put it this way: This man is so southern that when he’s offered a contract for a radio show, he asks if he’ll be paid in Confederate.

The similarities end there. If characters like Andy Taylor and Ben Matlock are a positive force in grits and gravy southern comfort, then Lonesome Rhodes is their antithesis. He is a negative force if there ever was one. Right off the bat when radio reporter Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) meets Rhodes in an Arkansas jail (put there the previous night for being drunk and disorderly), he’s mean, surly, ill-tempered, and uncooperative. Only the coaxing of a deal with the sheriff to be let go early gets him to agree to play his guitar and sing one of his grassroots country songs, which he seemingly makes up on the fly.

Rhodes is dirty, disheveled, unkempt, rude, rotten, selfish, capricious, libidinous, hedonistic, debaucherous, and just an all-around nasty fellow. He cleans up nicely, and is able to present a respectable front to the general public, who are charmed by him and adore him. But behind the scenes, when the cameras stop rolling, he’s the same nasty, ornery cuss that he ever was—or possibly worse after he becomes a big hit, moves to New York, and gets a show on national television.

Like the public, Jeffries is also won over by Rhodes’s charms. It’s plain to see why, since he does tone down the abrasiveness around her and tells her he needs her. Rhodes is very strong, very aggressive, and very persistent. He also lacks self-control, which gets him to do something that hurts Jeffries and erodes any sympathy we may have had for him.

The one man who sees through the Rhodes charade almost instantly is a TV writer by the name of Mel Miller, played by Walter Matthau. Rhodes and Miller meet in Memphis, after Rhodes leaves Arkansas but before he goes to New York. Miller is tasked with providing structure to Rhodes, but Rhodes mostly ignores and mocks him. One of the reasons I hold “A Face in the Crowd” in such high regard is a speech at the end by Miller, bluntly delivered by Matthau. It’s one of the best tell it like it is speeches in cinema history, laying out the cold hard truth and giving a character who has just had his comeuppance a glimpse of what’s in store for him. The justice dished out in this movie is extremely satisfying.

Released in 1957, “A Face in the Crowd” is more relevant today than it was back then. It recognizes the ability of celebrities to be influencers, and cautions to be wary of who you follow since they may not really have your best interests in mind. It also explores the self-importance and megalomania of those who let fame get to their head. In today’s day and age where being famous for being famous is actually a thing, it’s more important than ever to heed the warnings within this movie.

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Aside from the great story, rich characters, and deep, meaningful themes, “A Face in the Crowd” has one more thing to offer movie watchers in 2019. It’s the fact that some of the products from back then are still around today, and I for one can’t help but wonder how similar or different they were. For example, Rhodes is a drinker, and in one scene he’s holding a bottle of Jack Daniels. The label is instantly recognizable as it looks the same today as it did in 1957. There is also a scene where Rhodes is drinking Budweiser. The label was different in 1957, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it was actually good beer back then—or was it always swill?

Then there’s Vitajex, a fledgling snake oil pill that was made up for the movie. The advertising company in charge of it is having a hard time with the marketing campaign. Rhodes, however, has ideas on how to market it to show that it does do the job it proclaims to do in restoring vitality. On the surface, this is a product that would be a pill equivalent to today’s energy drinks. However, the advertising for it would make the marketing departments for Viagra and Cialis blush. The Vitajex pills are a great metaphor for Rhodes himself: All superficial marketing and product creation, with nothing substantial to really offer. “A Face in the Crowd,” however, has a lot to say—and says it well. Buy it.

More New Releases: “Escape Room,” thriller in which six strangers find themselves in circumstances beyond their control, and must use their wits to survive; and “Destroyer,” starring Nicole Kidman as a police detective who reconnects with people from an undercover assignment in her distant past in order to make peace.

 Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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