Friday, January 20, 2017

The Films of 1964: Seven Days in May



“There’s been abroad in this land in recent months a whisper that we have somehow lost our greatness; that we do not have the strength to win without war the struggles for liberty throughout the world.  This is slander, because our country is strong. Strong enough to be a peacemaker. It is proud. Proud enough to be patient.  The whisperers and the detractors, the violent men are wrong. We will remain strong and proud, proud and patient, and we will see a day when on this Earth all men will walk out of the tunnels of tyranny into the bright sunshine of freedom.”

-Seven Days in May (1964), written by Rod Serling; directed by John Frankenheimer.

Seven Days in May, a film, penned by Twilight Zone (1959-1961) creator Rod Serling is based on a 1962 best-selling novel that concerns an attempted military coup of the U.S. government by an extreme right-wing, four star general.

Like the tale depicted in The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May is actually an unusual -- and often uncomfortable -- fusion of historical inspiration, and speculation that, given the vantage point of time, reads like prophecy.

Specifically, Seven Days in May looks to historical figures and events for the nature and details of its villain, the treasonous General Scott (Burt Lancaster).

But simultaneously, the 1964 film forecasts the future (or rather, the now…) in terms of right-wing outrage over any U.S. President or agenda not to its ideological preference. 

As you may have noticed if you’ve been conscious at all for the last eight years, it’s not just that the President’s agenda is wrong to these folks, it is that it is illegitimate and dangerous, and that the Commander-in-chief is actually traitor (or “other”) for possessing non-right wing values and beliefs.

We have seen this very dynamic recur in at least three presidencies in modern times, and Seven Days in May -- in a brilliantly-worded finale -- exposes such narcissistic “patriotism” for what it really often is: sedition and treason. 

You simply can’t lay claim to being a patriotic American citizen if your sole mission in life is to destroy the legally elected U.S. President. 

Seven Days in May gives us two military men, both right-wingers, and allows us to compare them, side-by-side (much as The Manchurian Candidate provided us two right wing senators -- Harding and Iselin -- and afforded audiences the same type of comparison).

One right-wing soldier in Seven Days in May, played by Kirk Douglas, understands his duty, and obligation under the law, to serve the Commander-in-Chief, even though he disagrees with the president’s politics.  Douglas’s Casey is able to put his personal belief system aside and trust in the people who sent the President to office.

And then there is another right-wing soldier, the aforementioned Scott (Lancaster), who plots a revolution to substitute his own judgment for that of the lawfully elected U.S. President. Duty is not what calls Scott. Evangelical certainty, and moral self-righteousness are his only guideposts.

Seven Days in May is a battle between these two men and their competing visions. One man serves his country, and realizes that to be President is to see things in a different way than a general, or soldier might.

The other man serves only his ideology (and thus his vanity). In serving this idol, he steps over the will expressed by the American people.

Seven Days in May is disturbing -- and tautly edited -- as the exquisite screenplay by Serling fleshes out the details of the coup attempt, and the President’s last-ditch attempt to hold onto the sacred responsibility that “We the People” entrusted him with.

Like The Manchurian Candidate, this film may feel dated to some today, in part because the Halls of Power featured in Seven Days in Men are populated exclusively by white men, and in part because the depiction of Eleanor Holbrooke (Ava Gardner) is a bit patronizing. She is treated, even by Casey, as a child; one who can’t select for herself how she should live, or who she should be.

But again -- as I always like to point out -- films are made in a historical context.

It’s true that Seven Days in May has seen time pass it by in some ways. But like The Manchurian Candidate, it seems to resonate more fully today than it has in some recent years.  In some fashion, it has been passed by modern contexts, and in other ways Seven Days in May is again frighteningly timely.


“Why, in God's name, do we elect a man president and then try to see how fast we can kill him…”

Marine Colonel Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas), through happenstance and coincidence, discovers that his superior, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Scott (Lancaster) is moving men and equipment in preparation for a coup in just a matter of days.

In just a week, Scott and those he commands will seize all television and radio communication in the United States, using a secretly-funded and secretly-manned unit, ECOMCON (Emergency Communications Control) to usurp authority from the historically unpopular President, Jordan Lyman (Fredric March).

Scott’s reason for the coup is simple. He disagrees with a disarmament treaty between the Soviet Union and the United States that the President supports and wishes to see ratified.  Many Americans feel just as he does, and many of them protest outside the White House.

Casey reports everything he knows about the coup attempt to the President, and Lyman’s chief of staff, Paul Girard (Martin Balsam).  Girard rejects the tale as paranoid fantasy, but the President realizes he can’t afford to be caught flat-footed, and organizes a brigade of trusted aides to help him determine where he stands. 

As everyone is quick to realize, General Scott controls the military, and therefore possesses force. The President’s great power, by contrast, is the moral authority of his office, and the Constitution.
Girard is killed in a suspicious plane crash while soliciting the aid of a Navy officer (John Houseman) who refused to be part of the coup. 

Meanwhile, the President’s friend, Senator Raymond Clark of Georgia (Edmond O’Brien) is held in custody by Scott’s men when he attempts to find the secret ECOMCON base.

Casey is ordered, against his will, to hunt down incriminating love letters from Scott to his former lover, Eleanor (Ava Gardner), so that the President, if necessary, can “slime” his enemy with them. 

The President absolutely resists this option -- realizing it works against his moral authority -- and instead demands, in a face-to-face meeting, Scott’s resignation.

But Scott is not ready to give up his grab for power just yet…


“And from this…desperation we look for a champion in red, white and blue. Every now and then, a man on a white horse rides by, and we appoint him to be our personal god for the duration.”

Seven Days in May opens with a pan down across the United States Constitution. The writing on the document is large enough, and clear enough that we can read it. 

As the camera pans down this founding document, the numerals 1 to 7 are scrawled hastily and awkwardly over it, in black writing. 

This writing suggests that in just seven days, the Constitution can be desecrated, if Scott’s plan is carried out.

The writing over the founding document is thus akin to graffiti, despoiling the image of the Constitution.


And this optical “superimposition” of graffiti, of writing, over our Constitution also serves as a metaphor for Scott’s actions. By planning to take power from the President, and from the people who elected him, he is similarly spoiling or betraying America. We see the Constitution literally soiled. And we see Scott’s plan to trample it.

After this dynamic and effective opening, Seven Days in May cuts to a protest outside the White House as it becomes violent.

On one side of the divide are the folks who see the disarmament treaty as a cowardly, treacherous act. 

On the other are those who agree with Lyman, and view the treaty as a way to help secure peace in our (nuclear) age. Frankenheimer’s camera takes us right into the scuffle with a shaky cam, quick cuts, and very informal camera work. This approach makes the protest surprisingly visceral, and also has the effect of making us feel under siege; like we are there, experiencing the protest and the blows ourselves.


This technique is perfect because, of course, we are there. We all grapple with issues like this, on a daily basis.  We all stand to win or lose, depending on how things turn out, depending on what our leaders decide.

These two scenes, in tandem, create quite an ominous or tense mood right out of the gate. First, we see our most revered founding document desecrated, and then we see civil debate break down into irreconcilable violence. 

Together, these two moments light the match, the fuse that burns throughout Seven Days in May right up until the film’s cathartic and uplifting final speech by Lyman, a true statesman.

In terms of its approach to history, Seven Days in May has clearly selected some historical inspirations for Scott, the self-aggrandizing “patriot” who is convinced, primarily, of his own greatness/correctness.


Some critics (and indeed, Frankenheimer himself), view Scott as a Senator McCarthy figure. McCarthy, as I wrote in another review, led a witch-hunt against “Communist infiltrators” in the U.S. Government to make, actually, a name for himself.

Other see Scott as a corollary for General Edwin Walker, a man whom President Eisenhower chastised for putting his own personal politics above his duty. Eisenhower asked for, and received, Walker’s resignation.

Today, men of this stripe are still with us, putting their personal religious beliefs and views on ideology ahead of their job as military men or advisors to the government.  So, Seven Days in May has not created Scott out of whole cloth in some attempt to discredit people on the right side of the political spectrum.  Instead, a straight line can be drawn from men like McCarthy, and Walker to Scott…and then people in the present time.

And again, we have the example of Casey. He is from the same political party and belief system as Scott, but he is not a demagogue or an ideologue. He is a patriot who sees the system as wise, and protects it from desecration.

What Seven Days in May also gets right is the long, historical -- and let’s face it -- disgraceful attempt to dismiss and diminish peace efforts (and treaties, specifically) as insidious weak-kneed methods by which Presidents plan to destroy America. 

Think this is a belief that only occurs in fiction? 

Consider the skepticism with which President Reagan -- a conservative! -- was greeted, by right-wingers in 1988, when attempting to get a disarmament treaty with Russia through the Senate.  One senator said, almost word for word, in that meeting, what Scott says to Lyman in Seven Days in May, beginning with the assertion “The Soviets have broken most every treaty they have ever signed.”

If you require a more recent historical example of the principle and scenario spelled out in the Frankenheimer film, just remember the response to the U.S.’s attempt to make peace with Iran in 2015-2016.  Some 47 senators signed a letter warning Iran that they would not consider any such treaty binding.  Essentially, they were circumventing the prerogatives of the U.S. President, in an act that some have called “mutinous” and “traitorous.” 

Seven Days in May cannily includes a Senator (Whit Bissell) in the conspiracy “loop” with Scott, and goes just one step further: making the mutiny and treason manifest as a military take-over.


Most deftly, however, Seven Days in May gets right the notion we see so often in our national discourse; that people are loudly patriotic only so long as their party and beliefs are in power. 

When they are not in power, what do they do? How do they act? What do they say?

They talk down America.

They say specifically, that America is no longer great. They say it is weak. (And only they can make it strong again. Not with their action, but with their “beliefs.”)

Posted at the top of the review is the speech by President Lyman in Seven Days in May, which addresses this terrible quality, the diminishing of America to score political points…even when the whole world is listening. 

President Lyman rightly reports exactly what this kind of talk really is.

It is “slander,” he declares. America is great.  Great enough to be both strong and patient, and to seek ways out of wars, rather than finding excuses for fighting them.

That speech calls out men who purport to be patriots but actually root against America when their team isn’t in power. 

Lyman has another great moment in the film.  He is baffled -- as often I am -- by the hatred of these so-called patriots for the very government they claim to revere.


He reports: “You have such a fervent, passionate, evangelical faith in this country. Why in the name of God don’t you have any faith in the system of government you’re so hell bent to protect?”

That’s a good question.

And one we should all still be asking, even fifty years since Seven Days in May’s premiere.

The Films of 1962: The Manchurian Candidate


“There are people who think of Johnny as a clown and a buffoon, but I do not. I despise John Iselin and everything that Iselin-ism has come to stand for. I think, if John Iselin were a paid Soviet agent, he could not do more harm to this country than he’s doing now.”

--The Manchurian Candidate (1962)


In every presidential election, the term “Manchurian Candidate” gets lobbed like a hand grenade -- by the press, and voters -- at some aspiring politico who is feared to possess allegiances beyond the American populace.

Such a candidate -- a Manchurian one -- is widely defined as an individual “seeking elective office who appears to support one thing or group, but is actually supportive of another thing, or another group.”

The 1962 film, The Manchurian Candidate concerns a hard-right-wing candidate, Johnny Iselin, who was secretly (and perhaps unwittingly) the tool for Russian and Chinese communist interests. 

These foreign powers, in the film, interfered in an American presidential election using brainwashing and murder. 

So on one hand, the film’s candidate, Iselin -- described as “a clown and a buffoon” in the dialogue -- is a McCarthy-like hunter of communists who makes rousing, patriotic speeches. But on the other hand we have the knowledge that this candidate is a craven, grasping, hapless tool controlled by insidious foreign forces that stand to benefit -- or be rewarded -- by his election to the highest office in the land.

Back in 1962, the John Frankenheimer film (based on the novel by Richard Condon) was generally considered far-fetched, imaginative, and wild in its plot and details. 

Today -- with a mounting evidence pointing to foreign influence in our most recent election -- we might view the film as prophecy; as the shape of things to come.

The Manchurian Candidate was remade in 2004, but it is the black-and-white 1960s effort which remains the superior work of art, in part because of the director’s careful use of symbolism (mainly images of Americana), and in part because of its use of contradictions, in terms of character and plotting, to constantly engender surprise and shock.

It’s true that the film has aged some, as all works of art do. 

Instead of casting a Korean man in a crucial supporting role, for instance, the filmmakers cast Henry Silva…a Sicilian, in that role. When this character speaks, he does so in the kind of broken English you hear in black-and-white World War II movies. Accordingly, the performance doesn’t translate well to today’s more culturally-aware context.  Similarly, there’s a talk, late in the film, of sending a Christmas card to a Buddhist that is, if not in bad taste, at least unnecessarily insensitive.

These are very small things, however, when one considers the remarkable artistry of the film, and its weirdly prophetic nature. 

After all, consider the following: This film not only predicted the idea of a sort of right-wing double-agent running for President, but imagined -- the year before the assassination of JFK -- how a “loner” (or patsy) could possibly be harnessed to inflict terrorism on a population.


 “It’s the most rousing speech I’ve ever read. It’s been worked on, here and in Russia, on and off, for over eight years.”

In 1952, during the Korean War, a troop of nine American soldiers are captured by Russian forces, and helicoptered into Manchuria, where they are brainwashed by a scientist from the Pavlov Institute. 

Among those captured are Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), step-son of Communist-bashing, right-wing U.S. Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory).

The soldiers are returned to the U.S. believing a false story that Raymond saved their lives. He is decorated for this act of (fictional) gallantry, but in truth, he is now an agent acting against the United States, though he does not realize it. 

Instead, he is triggered to obey his American handler (his mother [Angela Lansbury]) when he sees a Red Queen in a deck of playing cards.

Disturbed by nightmares of his brainwashing experience, Bennett Marco investigates Raymond Shaw in his capacity as a military officer. He comes to befriend Raymond, a not very “loveable” or likeable loner. 

When Raymond is ordered to kill a U.S. Senator Harding (John McGiver), and Harding’s daughter, Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish) -- Raymond’s new wife -- he must obey.  But his hatred for his mother grows.

When he learns that he is to be the assassin at a political convention, and pave the way for a “Manchurian” candidate, Raymond acts of his own accord, and earns the medal that his country awarded him.


“I’m on the point of winning for them the greatest foothold they would ever have in this country. And they paid me back by taking your soul away from you…”

Although I have described The Manchurian Candidate as prophetic, it also takes inspiration from recent American history.

The character of Johnny Iselin is clearly based on Republican senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1989); a homegrown demagogue who made a name for himself in the U.S. Senate, and across the nation for his accusation that the U.S. Government had been infiltrated by communist agents and sympathizers. 

McCarthy undertook a witch-hunt to find and slime his enemies on those terms (as Angela Lansbury does in The Manchurian Candidate), and at one point claimed he had a list of “205 names” representing communist sympathizers in the U.S. Government. Later, he claimed to possess a paper with “57” such names instead.

In The Manchurian Candidate, Iselin first claims “207 names” and then, after seeing a bottle of Heinz 57 Ketchup, likewise modifies his claim to “57” communists.



The shift to 57 is both a biting attack against McCarthy, and a joke at the same time. The number 57 is easy for Iselin to remember because of effective product placement. It appears on a ketchup bottle. And like Heinz and its ketchup, Iselin is similarly advertising himself as a kind of brand name: a brave communist hunter!

What The Manchurian Candidate suggests, via Iselin’s comical inability to settle on a particular number of communist infiltrators, is that the man is indeed a clown and buffoon, but a dangerous one who has the full attention of the national press. 

Reporters record and mindlessly transmit across the nation (via TV) the McCarthy-like senator’s every accusation, and that’s the point. Iselin is a huckster, but one who understands how to manipulate television and thus make a name for himself. 

As Mrs. Iselin notes, no one questions that there are communist sympathizers in the government after Johnny Iselin’s televised “stunt.”  They only question the number of them. In political conversations and rallies, lies are accepted as facts, even without evidence, if they are repeated often enough. It's fake news.

What The Manchurian Candidate comments on, then, is the dangerous power of the Mass Media to not only inform, but to mis-inform. The press can spread truth, or fiction with equal power. It can highlight the words of a statesman, or an unrepentant, attention-hungry liar. Many people in the audience cannot discern which they are seeing, honest patriot, or serial liar. That’s a big problem for democracy, and one not easily solved.


Iselin, after all, gets the vice-presidential nomination of his party in the film, not for statesmanship, not for political accomplishments, but for his crusade to find communists in the U.S. Government, a crusade built entirely on fictional accusations.  His lies are his experience.  His lies are his portfolio. And he nearly rises to the highest office of the land based on those lies.

As other reviewers and scholars have noted, Iselin and his wife are associated, throughout the film, with imagery of Abraham Lincoln. 

Not simply Americana, but specifically of our sixteenth President.

Iselin’s reflection, for example, is seen in a Lincoln portrait at one point. And at a party for his son and Jocelyn, Iselin actually dresses as Lincoln. Throughout the film, busts of Lincoln are seen in the Iselin study too.




Why associate a McCarthy-esque charlatan with Abraham Lincoln, a man for whom so many hold such high esteem? 

Well, some scholars have suggested that the Iselins have selected Lincoln as a paragon to hide behind. They have gone overboard with their Lincoln love, only to cloak their true anti-American proclivities. 

After re-screening the film, I think there’s more specific commentary here. After McCarthy - and especially today -- one must ask: what has happened to the party of Lincoln?  

This was the party that freed the slaves and ended slavery in America. How has it gone from the heights of Lincoln to the depths represented by McCarthy? 

How has it gone from holding the fabric of a nation together, to manipulating the press to tear that fabric apart for individual or personal gain?

The multitudinous images of Lincoln throughout the film remind us how the noble have fallen, how a party has fallen from greatness. It’s not just that the Iselins’ hide behind Lincoln, it’s that they use his party as a base from which to launch an attack on the greatness of our nation. They appear to be extreme patriots, and are, in fact, betrayers.

The Manchurian Candidate also associates the Iselins’ nemesis (a very responsible and noble member of the party of Lincoln, by contrast…), with a symbol of Americana even more ingrained in our national psyche than that of Lincoln: the bald eagle.

When Raymond declares his desire to marry Jocelyn, Senator Harding is seen in front of a huge symbol of a bald eagle, with wings unfurled. 


These wings seem to sprout, literally, from his shoulders. Similar eagle imagery is seen in association with him, later. When Raymond is a programmed assassin, he crosses the threshold into Harding's kitchen to murder the senator. Over the threshold, the symbol of an American Eagle is visible. If Iselin is a corruption of the Republic party, Harding is the party's (and nation's paragon).



In the latter example, the symbol of the eagle showcases Raymond's point of transgression. The murder of Harding is the murder of liberty.


Also, consider the symbolism of Iselin wiping his cracker across the surface of a cake decorated as Old Glory, the American flag.  It's a desecration.  Just as Iselin's rise to office is a desecration to democracy, the Constitution, and to America.

So what does the film’s symbolism reveal to us then, if taken in conjunction?

Iselin is a McCarthy-esque demagogue who, if elected, would take the party of Lincoln down, and literally serve a foreign power. Harding, by contrast (a man of the same party) understands the real spirit of America, even though Mrs. Iselin has called him a “communist.” 

The battle in the film is thus between those who stoop to exploit patriotism and nationalism, and those who understand the real, true values of America, and seek to protect it. 

Raymond, similarly, appears to be a loner and assassin, but he is actually the courageous savior of American freedom, appropriately eulogized in the film’s moving coda.

I wrote in my introduction about the contradictions in The Manchurian Candidate, and how well they function to craft this particular. 

Consider, in this film, we meet a man who is a bitter, nasty loner, but who desires only to be lovable. Everyone seems to hate him, and he is a pawn of the villains. But, as noted above, he gives his life to save our country.  So the jerk and brainwashed assassin is also a great patriot, taking matters into his own hands when he knows the army and police are too late to act.

We also meet a nefarious communist scientist/agent, who loves a good joke. He is no Fu Manchu stereotype, but a jolly man who loves a good guffaw, and encourages humor in his compatriots. He doesn’t present as dastardly, but as jovial.

Similarly, we encounter a monstrous (and indeed, incestuous…) woman who hides behind the imagery of Abraham Lincoln, and calls out other Americans as communists when, in fact, she is a communist agent herself.

Part of the joy inherent in viewing this film, even several times, is grappling with these contradictions, and the way they simultaneously shade and reflect character, or identity. 

What are we to make of the eerie coincidence that Jocelyn shows up at the masquerade party as the Red Queen, the very figure that “activates” Raymond, the wolf in sheep’s clothing?

For years, many have also speculated about Janet Leigh’s character, who befriends Marco and engages in a weird conversation with him that also seems to suggest, at least tangentially, that she is a spy sent to handle him.

This, my friends, is a film with layers, and the contradictions are part of that layering. We are asked to look beyond the surface, and search for the truth.

And let’s face it, these contradictions are also a key part of the down-and-dirty fighting of American political campaigns. 

The camera records people and events, but it can’t tell us who is lying, or who is being truthful. It can’t expose the contradictions for us. We have to be smart. We have to be critical thinkers.

Unfortunately, the camera goes to the loudest blowhard, not the smartest or most judicious individual.  Our very media, our method of discourse, appears to encourage and reward extreme behavior, and the most extreme candidates.

The Manchurian Candidate saw this problem clearly more than a half-century ago (as did A Face in the Crowd in 1957.)

The Manchurian Candidate is a well-made, well-filmed effort. Consider, the moment, for instance, at the Lady’s Garden Club, when the true nature of the event is exposed. Frankenheimer’s camera goes around in a circle. Upon the completion of the circle, the ladies have been replaced by the communist agents and audience.

Or consider the karate fight sequence, between Silva and Sinatra, which is masterfully choreographed and cut, and starts with a kind of lightning bolt or shock, as Marco recognizes Silva's character.

The film’s craftsmanship holds up well in terms of relating the twisting narrative to audiences, but the production’s use of symbol-laden imagery makes it a document of value and enduring truth in terms of understanding American politics. 

The Manchurian Candidate reminds us that the most independent, patriotic voice in the room -- or on camera -- may not, in the final analysis, be either independent or patriotic.

The Films of 1957: A Face in the Crowd


Based on the 1955 short story by Bud Schulberg, “Your Arkansas Traveler,” Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) is the cautionary tale of an American demogogue’s rise to -- and fall from -- power. 

A demagogue might be defined, broadly, as a “political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than rational argument.”

The film focuses on "Lonesome" Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a small-time crook and fraud plucked from obscurity in a county jail in Arkansas by a radio programmer, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia O’Neal). She is seeking “local color” for her radio show, and Rhodes can spin a story and sing a folk tune like no other.  

Marcia's search for an audience -- ratings, in modern lingo -- gives the charismatic but malicious Rhodes both exposure and a public platform. Before long, he’s moved to a bigger radio market. Then he transitions to national TV, talking politics and “telling it like it is” to a receptive, low-information audience that hangs on his every word and believes his every (false) piety.

Rhode’s rise to fame and fortune is aided and abetted by his sponsors and his network. They see his viewership swell to 65 million people. That's a lot of consumers who will buy products from sponsors.

A drunk, misogynist, mean-spirited narcissist, Rhodes appreciatively soaks up all the adoration and power, coming eventually to believe his own press. 

Eventually, he grows so powerful that he advises a presidential campaign in the art of slogans and sound-byes. He also begins hosting a political program, shrouding extreme right wing isolationist views under the soothing umbrella of Southern-fried common sense. 



Eventually, Marcia realizes the key to Rhodes’ downfall involves revealing his true colors to the masses that worship his “home-spun” wisdom and apparent “truth telling.

As that synopsis makes clear, A Face in the Crowd is a terrifying story of what can happen to America once “politics has entered a new stage: the TV stage.” 

One man’s hateful, ignorant words -- not to mention resentment and anti-intellectualism -- finds purchase in the psyches of millions of like-minded people. Kazan’s camera cuts, at one point to a veritable forest of TV antennae jutting upwards from the rooftops of an urban jungle in order to make his point. These receiving devices look like metal weeds, growing and stretching upwards to the sky. 

The point, of course, is how the mass media can instantly amplify -- for its own enrichment -- one voice to a volume previously unimaginable in human history. Even Rhodes himself -- in a rare moment of apparent self-awareness – recognizes the danger inherent in this technology and its ability to broadcast an entertaining (albeit dangerous) voice to million.  

Power,” he says, “it’s dangerous. You gotta be a saint.”



But as the film makes plain, Rhodes is no saint. 

His father was a con-man who abandoned the family, and one feels that this is the galvanizing influence in Rhodes’ life. He has never been able to get past his father’s actions, or feel truly confident in himself. Accordingly, he hates authority in all its forms. He hates his father, who abandoned him. He hates the law, which punishes him for infractions. He hates establishment figures, who possess the power he covets. 

Rhodes also hates those who are smarter than he is, like TV writer Mel Miller (Walter Mattthau). Miller represents the education and knowledge that could expose Rhodes as the ignorant lout he is.



One of the most intriguing aspects of the film involves Miller’s impotence in the face of Rhodes’ continuing disdain and hatred for him. We are led to the conclusion that is easier for a demagogue to to hate and attack than it is for a rational person to respond meaningfully to that demagogue. 

That’s undoubtedly because demogogue’s rely on powerful emotions (anger, rage, resentment) and mob-like followers who repeat mindlessly their every word and slogan. Educated intelligent people are like deer in a headlight by comparison, making logical cases and appealing to cerebral arguments.  
Miller simply can’t conceive of the fact that a nativist, bigoted simpleton could have a better innate understanding of human nature and human foibles than he does. But Miller knows what makes his people tick.

Importantly, Miller fails to fully understand his role in Rhodes’ rise. Like Marcia, he is culpable for elevating a demagogue to the status of national treasure. Rhodes is a distraction, a joke, a fad when it is good for Miller’s wallet or career.  

Only later is the coarseness of the superstar a danger to freedom itself.



What’s amazing about Rhodes, the film subtly observes, is the yawning chasm of cognitive dissonance between his public “persona” and his real personality. 

Rhodes lives in a luxurious penthouse apartment, surrounds himself with wealth and women, and covets his TV ratings. In short, he is a coddled, entitled rich man.  But his public shtick -- his fake, media-driven image -- is as “The voice of grass roots wisdom.” 

On stage, he voices syrupy Christian platitudes like “the family that prays together, stays together,” from his humble “cracker-barrel” sound stage. In real life, he is a philanderer who marries a 17 year old girl and then cheats on her.

In real life, he is also being supported by a political establishment that wants his audience’s votes. 

So Rhodes is a text-book fraud. 

He pretends to be a common-sense, salt-of-the-earth, plain talker when in fact he is a messenger boy for the wealthy elite.  Rhodes claims he believes in the common man, but he hates and derides the common man.  

His ambitions are bottomless.  “The whole country is just like my flock of sheep,” he enthuses at one point.



Delightfully, A Face in the Crowd provides a prescription for the destruction of Rhodes and demogogues just like him. 

Realizing she has created a monster, Marcia turns up the studio sound during a live broadcast, and she lets Rhodes hang himself on-air. Believing the sound is off, Rhodes expresses his true feelings for his audience. “I can make ‘em eat dog food like it is steak!” He reports.  

He is so confident in the fact that his followers will mindlessly follow wherever he leads that he actually says he could “murder” people, and they’d still be on his side.

But that’s not the case. He has overestimated his appeal.

The audience at home finally realizes that Larry is not one of them at all. He is an impostor, and just as much a tool of the hated “elite” as any conventional politician or leader. He has not “told them like it is,” at all. 

He has, contrarily, pandered to them in the worst ways possible, and they have taken his words as the God’s honest truth. He has not only played them and abused them at every turn...he has gotten rich doing so.

Kazan finds a clever visual to express Rhodes’ sudden and dramatic fall from grace. We see the elevator lights going down, quickly, in his apartment building, floor to floor. He starts at the penthouse, and drops to ground level, before our eyes, in seconds.  The fall is more than symbolic. It is a meteoric crash he experiences, one even faster than his surprising, relentless rise.

A Face in the Crowd is a terrifying drama in part because of its plausibility. The mass media often gives irresponsible voices of hate, bigotry, and false piety a platform and open mic to influence the nation. 

The film notes the media’s inherent culpability for creating such a demogogue, and rightly so.  If you willingly invite the devil to dance with you, you can’t complain, later, when you don’t like how he treats his dance partner.

The film also thrives because of Griffith’s unforgettable performance. He portrays a monster of such high energy and narcissistic pride. Rhodes is a monster of considerable charisma and, hauntingly, occasional moments of insight. But he has no loyalty or feelings of responsibility to anyone or anything beyond his own self-glorification.  The thought have him possessing real power is terrifying.

A Face in the Crowd is a sobering reminder of how a dangerous, narcissistic demagogue can use and exploit the media (in a symbiotic relationship…) to change the face and values of a whole nation. 

But the film also reminds us how to stop such monsters.  

Journalists, concerned citizens, politicians, and voters all possess a responsibility to see that his “personality finally comes through,” preferably on the very channel that created him.  

When we get wise to him, that’s our strength,” the film knowingly concludes.

The question that makes A Face in the Crowd such an intense, anxiety-provoking experience is one for the ages. 

What happens if we get wise to the demagogue too late?

To answer that interrogative, one need only look at some of the worst historical tragedies of the 20th century.