The rise of a raucous hayseed named Lonesome Rhodes from itinerant Ozark guitar picker to local media rabble-rouser to TV superstar and political king-maker. Marcia Jeffries is the innocent Sarah Lawrence girl who discovers the great man in a back-country jail and is the first to fall under his spell.
Every time the guffawing monster she has created boils over into buffoonery or violence, it is Marcia’s face, open and serene even when it is watchful, that brings him back to room temperature. Kazan smartly holds on these moments, when Marcia and Rhodes gaze deeply into each other’s eyes, searching for what they may be able to exploit in the other. She is his tamer, his enabler, and eventually his lover. Her eyes glimmer with hope and fascination, driven by blind curiosity to see how far this hayseed can travel on the wind. [This film is] a vivid illustration of the way the cons of the modern consumer-political landscape are most readily swallowed by those most insecure in their own identities. […] Like the faux cowboy George W. Bush and the showbiz “folk” hero Ronald Reagan before him, Rhodes isn’t selling results so much as a false sense of security. […] Rhodes will likely be back on television eventually, even after being abandoned by his fans. “People’s memories aren’t too long,” Mel says. This may be the hardest-hitting insight in the film, that Americans love a rehabilitation story. It helps explain how a businessman who has done nothing but fail at business could come to star in a reality television show that claims to teach success and business savvy. […] Interestingly, Kazan later said he’d come to feel that he and Schulberg had made Rhodes too comically evil, in their depiction of him as a megalomaniac lulling himself to sleep in a high-rise penthouse with the raucous applause of an imaginary audience.
To call A Face in the Crowd prescient wouldn’t quite be accurate. That would suggest that the American phenomenon Schulberg’s script and Kazan’s film capture hadn’t been with us from the beginning. This is a country where two-bit entertainers have frequently joined the political class, buoyed by name recognition and charisma alone, and it’s perhaps the only developed nation in the world where this happens so often. Americans today might like to think we are on to bilkers and crooks like Rhodes, that we can see a con for a con. In 2010, Neal sat down at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood for a postscreening discussion of A Face in the Crowd. The audience was asked: “How many of you seeing Lonesome Rhodes on TV would trust him or be drawn to him?” The response was only a smattering of applause. Later that year, season 10 of The Apprentice premiered on NBC.
— April Wolfe (Criterion)
When Jeffries broadcasts Rhodes, who believes he’s off air, calling his supporters a herd of idiotic sheep, the film settles for the most obvious takedown of the man imaginable. The notion that audiences, who see Rhodes as a savior, could so quickly flip from affectionate to contemptuous feels too easy. Given the uncertainty about television as a platform that runs throughout A Face in the Crowd, the finale’s relegation of Rhodes to lunatic status, left to rant and rave alone in his high-rise penthouse, feels more like wishful thinking on behalf of the filmmakers than a consideration of the potential consequences of celebrity worship.
— Clayton Dillard (Slant Magazine)
If Fascism comes to America, this film suggests, it'll be wearing the friendly, donkey grin of a good ol' boy. […] Erotic heat is always accompanied by heavy humidity in the fictional realm that critic Dwight Macdonald labeled Kazanistan. Set before air-conditioning became the norm in homes and businesses, Kazan's melodramas are drenched in perspiration—foreheads glistening, shirts stained, sheets damp with fetid desire, electric fans swiveling their heads and shifting stale air around in cramped rooms. […] By the time [the elevator] reaches the lobby, Rhodes's career has hit flat bottom. Stunned, stung, disoriented, he retreats to his Manhattan penthouse lair, where his punny name takes on ironic significance: he learns it's Lonesome at the top. In 50s films, nothing symbolizes how lonely it is at the top better than a penthouse suite from which love has flown. A spectacular view of the skyline, sure, but with no one tender to share it, no one to cuddle, it's just a high-rise mausoleum filled with the canned laughter and applause of imaginary crowds.
While contemporary reviewers scoffed at the prospect of a hayseed fireball like Lonesome Rhodes becoming a national sensation, Kazan-Schulberg's depiction of the packaging and marketing of fake authenticity now looks prophetic, if a trifle overcooked. […] These days we pride ourselves on being more sophisticated in perceiving image manufacturing and media manipulation, but I would argue that it's the average voters who have savvied up over the last half-century and the Beltway pundits who have become the rubes, regressively dumber with each political cycle. They're suckers for a "man of the people" more than the people themselves are! It's the Beltway cognoscenti who fetishized Bush's likability, harping on how much more fun he'd be to have a drink with than the cardboard Gore (never mind that Gore won the popular vote), lionize John McCain as a no-guff maverick (never mind his rampant reversals and shameless backflips to court favor with the Republican far right), and keep fobbing off Newt Gingrich […] as a bubbling fountain of futuristic intellect instead of the flagrantly opportunistic manure spreader he has shown himself to be over the last two decades. It was the majority of the American people who kept "Monicagate" in sensible perspective while archdeacons of capital wisdom such as David Broder worked themselves up to a fine moral lather, and it was the majority of the American people who faced reality and turned against the war in Iraq while the archdeacons frittered and fence-straddled. The militant gullibility and brassy confidence of today's elite opinion-makers produce more harm and folly than anything conjured in A Face in the Crowd. Because they possess influence. They're professional dupes.
— James Wolcott (Vanity Fair)
Walter Matthau co-stars as a sidelines cynic who offers frequent wise asides that serve as a nudge in the audience’s ribs, and he’s as enjoyably crusty a screen presence as ever until Kazan betrays him with a climactic monologue/lecture that Explains It All To You. Maybe Kazan feels the same way Rhodes does: that the audience is too dumb to get it unless he spells it out for them, on his terms, in moral-minded black and white.
— Jeremiah Kipp (Slant Magazine)