Before his immortal TV sitcom role, Andy Griffith gives a volatile performance as Larry Rhodes, a guitar-playing hobo who has an undefeatable taste for women and booze. He gets jailed after a bender, but gets plucked by Marcia Jefferies (a passionate Patricia Neal of the original "The Day The Earth Stood Still"), a local radio station reporter and host of a show that focuses on average folk and shares its title with the film's. Before you know it, "Lonesome" (dubbed by Jefferies) is a radio star in Arkansas, a new Will Rogers (or a pre-Howard Stern, if you're not that old) for the "plain folks".
Offers from television and ad sponsors come pouring in. So do high ratings and screaming fans. So does a politician with presidential aspirations. Rhodes loves it, including the influence, wealth and women. He can't say no to the good life, while poor Jefferies, who takes a more than professional interest in him, is treated by him either as convenient comfort or yesterday's news. How can a man of the people be such a bastard?
Though despised (rightfully) by his fellow filmsmiths for naming names during the McCarthy era, director Elia Kazan takes the literate script by his "On The Waterfront" compeer, Budd Schulberg (co-wrote Rhodes's songs), and knits a stark examination of how fame can be a narcotic; television can reduce politics into sound bites and human decency and dignity can be forgotten in the hunt for money, power and sex. I wonder, in lieu of the last part, if the members of the Production Code, the decency enforcers of cinema (before the MPAA's rating system), were asleep during the screening of this film, whose sexual anecdotes are rising at the surface.
Commendable are the two main players. Griffith (should have been an Oscar contender) is a volcano with two feet, bursting with pride and, sometimes, fear while Neal's smart and sexy in her fragility, echoing Eva Marie Saint's role in "Waterfront". The others are impressive: Anthony Franciosa ("Fathom", "Across 110th St.) as a slimy junior exec at a mattress company who worms his way into Rhodes's camp; Walt Matthau ("Grumpy Old Men") as a copy scribe who knows Rhodes better than the man himself and Lee Remick (the original "Omen") as a corn-fed tart, who catches Rhodes's lecherous eyes during a sexually suggestive (!) baton-twirling contest, which she participates and wins. Guess who's the judge? Legendary newsmen Walter Winchell and Mike Wallace make cameos.
Like "Network", "A Face in The Crowd" is an unintentional prophecy of the evils of mass media. It flopped at the box office, when it first premiered, but it's now a classic lesson of how absolute power corrupts absolutely.