Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: A Face in the Crowd

previously: Showgirls, Black Narcissus and Bring it On

For today's episode of this new participatory series, in which we choose our single favorite images from a feature, the topic is Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd (1957). The film was chosen to commemorate the recent passing of Patricia Neal (1926-2010) and to honor the gifted cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr who was born on this very day in 1901. He went on to shoot landmark musicals, numerous classics and win two Oscars.

Andy Griffith's spontaneous verbosity hypnotizes Americans.
Patricia Neal's expressive watchfulness hypnotizes movie buffs.

A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Confession: I never knew what Keith Olbermann was talking about when he referred to Glenn Beck as "Lonesome Rhodes" but now the association is all too clear. I don't pretend to know if Beck ever had pure motives, but when A Face in the Crowd begins, Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith) is not a phony, but a bonafide man of the people. He's not what one would call a deep thinker but he's sly and he has an as yet unexploited ability to run his mouth off on any topic, and get people to listen, laugh and nod their heads in recognition. He's tailor made for the masses. And this 1957 Elia Kazan movie is so prescient it feels eerily of the moment in 2010.

The title of the film comes from a radio program created by whipsmart but emotionally unguarded Marcia (Patricia Neal). She recognizes Lonesome's potential almost immediately, making him the star of her show. She travels with him up through the ranks of radio and then television where Lonesome eventually becomes a star in the biggest market, New York City. By the film's final act he's a bonafide household name, a powerful opinion maker... and a monster. Rhodes, drunk on his own power, is contemptuous of both the truth and of "his flock" (i.e. the public) who he reasons will believe anything he tells them.

"♪ I'd like to have your money but I'd rather have my pride. ♫"
The still above is an emblematic loudmouth shot, a perfect distillation of early Lonesome. It's beautifully lit by Stradling, boisterously performed and plays a key note in the movie's symphony. Lonesome doesn't want to be controlled, he wants to control. In the scene he's supposed to be delivering a word from his sponsor but instead he rabidly bites the hand that feeds him. (Griffith's performance is as loud and in your face as Burt Lancaster's Elmer Gantry... and the characters are not dissimilar come to think of it.) Director Elia Kazan's staging is emotionally acute, too. This is Lonesome's first real test of his power. Note that he's facing away from the crowd even though he's speaking to them. He's already adopted them as flock; he's one of them, but immediately assuming a position as their representative speaker, rather than the entertainer he actually is.

That's my choice for best shot.

But because Patricia Neal is so special in the movie and there are a million great shots of her, I wanted to highlight one more scene (two shots).

Marcia's enigmatic seduction of Lonesome is lit so masterfully. The light seems to convey loneliness, sensuality and an ominous inchoate dread. Or maybe that's the power of great actressing? Marcia initiates the seduction but she's clearly already lost control of the relationship. Note how small she is with this shadowy giant in the long shot and then how she's shrinking back and blocked from view in the medium shot. The entire scene is moving and strange and their body language as she pulls (?) and he pushes (?) has weird beats of contradiction in it. Neal's face flashes aroused horror. But what is she aroused by and what is she scared of: Lonesome, her desire, the lengths she'll go to to find and keep success? We can't know and by the last beat of the scene, she's completely invisible to us.

[Oscar tangent: A Face in the Crowd is masterfully shot, edited, directed and acted and received a grand total of zero nominations. Uhhhh...]

Other Faces in the 'Best Shot' Crowd
  • Movies Kick Ass "The bigger I get, the smaller you make me feel." This is quite an insightful read.
  • Serious Film also chooses a meta moment..."up close it must be a nightmare."
  • Against the Hype the blabmeister "plunged into darkness" I chose this shot, too, before I actually wrote my article. I'm glad I moved on since Colin says it better than I.
  • Mierzwiak celebrates the expressive planes of Patricia Neal's face. Cinematographer Stradling Sr was famously beloved by Barbra Streisand and its easy to see why. Actresses could completely trust that he'd amp up their mystique and light them like the goddesses they were.
  • Okinawa Assault "The Reverse Norma Desmond"

 Other Films in This Series


Notas Sobre Creación Cultural e Imaginarios Sociales said...

You know what the hotel hallway reminded me of? "Justify My Love".
The look on Neal's face was so strange, like she really wanted to do it but knew she'd be selling her soul in the process.
Neal had such a way of embodying desire, I don't think I've seen a hornier performance than the one she gave in "The Fountainhead".

Anonymous said...

The hallway scene was so raw, like a buried treasure of a B-film, but in a good way. It's one of the moments when I keep thinking what would these characters have been if they did or did not do certain things. Both can be applied to the rest of the film.


Jorge Rodrigues said...

This week I'm sitting out on this wonderful series b/c I don't have the movie... Oh well, I had fun anyway reading your descriptions.

For September 15th you requested something modern... May I suggest... MOULIN ROUGE? Or CHICAGO? Or CHILDREN OF MEN if we're going for beautiful photography?

Mierzwiak said...


I was one step from choosing exactly the same shot from the hallway scene (the first one), but I wanted to focus on Neal's face. Amazing actress and great movie.

For September 15th I suggest Collateral, Children of Men or Inglourious Basterds.

Colin Low said...

As usual, I couldn't not chip in. Here's my writeup, and I'm glad we all at least agree on Neal, who's amazing, and whom you do great justice to in your paragraph on her. Cheers!

NicksFlickPicks said...

I'm sorry I couldn't participate after suggesting the movie in the first place, but I love what you wrote!

Mirko said...

I can't say what's my fav shot, still I think this a mighty film that boasts impressive perfs from Neal and breakingthroughs Griffith and Lee Remick

Paul Outlaw said...

More modern than Bring It On?

How about Far From Heaven (since you don't love I'm Not There)?

MD said...

The Hours? Marie Antoinette? Or perhaps that latter would be displaying too much Dunst love (if there is such a thing).

I haven't seen this movie yet, but I'm trying to find it. All the shots have me intrigued. I love how this series is motivating me to look for things I might not have found otherwise. I have a copy of Black Narcissus waiting for me when I get home. Looking forward to it.

Andrew R. said...

For the 15th, I suggest...Spirited Away or Pan's Labyrinth.

Volvagia said...

He said "modern" not "more modern than Bring it On." The Thin Red Line? It seems pretty obvious. But after that, I'd love to see a take on The Night of The Hunter. (My eighth best movie ever.)

iluvcinema said...

This movie absolutely fantastic especially because it totally resonates today and says so much about the power of media (and ego). It really should be required viewing for anyone who likes speechifying in media format. The everyman who is so not.

Michael said...

1957 is my all time favorite movie year.

There is this film as well as 12 Angry Men, Bridge on the River Kwai, Nights of Cabiria, Wild Strawberries, Witness for the Prosecution, Paths of Glory, Cranes are Flying, Funny Face, Throne of Blood, Sweet Smell of Success, and more.

Giving that wealth of film treasures the Oscars that year are unforgivable mundane. The lack of a single nomination for Paths of Glory is the one that burns me the most.

As for a modern choice I vote There Will Be Blood. This is self-serving cause I already did a post about my favorite shot, but it makes me anxious to see everyone else's choice.

Volvagia said...

The likely reason Paths of Glory was shut out was because it had the weakest battlefield scene in the history of cinema, sounding closer to Star Wars than an actual WWI combat zone.

Volvagia said...

Not that I hate the movie as a whole, but the battlefield scene was awful.

Paths of Glory: A-

Paths of Glory's Battlefield scene: D-

Platoon: A-

Platoon's Battlefield scenes: B

Saving Private Ryan: B

Saving Private Ryan's Battlefield scenes: A-

The Big Red One: A

The Big Red One's Battlefield Scenes: A+

Apocalypse Now: A+

Apocalypse Now's Battlefield Scenes: A++

Michael Parsons said...

Oh snap Jose with the 'Justify My Love' reminder. I was going to say that too. I somehow doubt they would be peeking in on drag queens and bondage.


michael -- well no drag queens exactly (the closest would be all those spangly baton twirling girls) but the movie is surprisingly sexual.

The Vitajex commercial was hilarious and definitely predicted all those commercials now -- i forget the product where the totally unsubtle implicatino is that the man taking the product suddenly has a big penis and his women are oh so satisfied. what is that called "en..." something. I thought it was a spoof the first time i saw it but it was a real commercial.

MrJeffery said...

Very ahead of its time. And yes, the Glenn Beck parallels are eerily accurate, especially after that creepy D.C. rally.

Volvagia said...

2 cuts from picture: Replace S + PP with Paths of Glory and Sweet Smell of Success.
2 cuts from director: Replace S + PP with Paths of Glory and The Seventh Seal.
4 cuts from actor: Replace all but winner with Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda and Andy Griffith.
3 cuts from Supporting Actor: Replace S + PP with Max Von Sydow, Burt Lancaster and Martin Balsam.
1 cut in original screenplay: Replace Designing Woman with The Seventh Seal, give Funny Face the win.
4 cuts in Adapted Screenplay:
Replace all but winner with Sweet Smell of Success, Throne of Blood, A Face in the Crowd and Witness for the Prosecution. (12 Angry Men has no additions or subtractions from the source, so it shouldn't be there.)
2 cuts from supporting actress:
Replace PP with Susan Harrison and Kay Thompson.

Colin Low said...

Also, um. Isn't Pandora's Box directed by Pabst, not Murnau?


argh. right you are. duh.
that's what i get for typing without thinking.

matt said...

Great choice of movie- was a fave when I saw it for a TV history class, but there's far too little written about it, in spite of its prescience.


matt -- i know. you'd think in this current climate it would rise up again (especially given Neal's passing and how little she is also written about.)

seasondays said...

september 15th is MEXICO BICENTENNIAL

maybe a modern mexican movie

i was thinking AMORES PERROS or Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, both feature beautiful cinematography from two of the best mexican cinematographers out there right now RODRIGO PRIETO and EMMANUEL LUBEZKI