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The Front

The Front(1976)

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An interesting acting departure for Woody Allen, this beautifully judged comedy-drama from 1976 is perhaps the only really successful movie about the notorious Blacklist era. Critics concerned about the HUAC and McCarthy witch hunts voiced displeasure that Martin Ritt and Walter Bernstein's The Front wasn't more incisive, accusatory and comprehensive about the harm done by the Blacklist. It's better to compare their film to a Sidney Poitier movie -- it is the strongest movie on the subject that the general public could be expected to accept. The non-threatening The Front wisely sets up the absurdity of the witch hunts and allows viewers to become curious on their own. For interested parties, it's a short step from this entertainment to the docu Point of Order!, actor Robert Vaughn's book Only Victims and the personal accounts found in interview-driven works like Tender Comrades. As with Poitier and the Civil Rights issue, the public apparently needs to take anything socially challenging by baby steps.

Most of what's written about the blacklisting era concerns big stars, writers and producers, like the Hollywood Ten. The news coverage of the recent passing of Pete Seeger made mention of his 'Blacklist' problem, when the fact is that the F.B.I. and the State Department harassed many performers that made social criticism or labor activism part of their performance. Through publications like Red Channels, for-profit "loyalty companies" pressured commercial sponsors to ban ideologically suspect performers from TV and radio. In some cases the government stepped in to revoke passports of targeted individuals, preventing them from making a living in Canada or overseas. But thousands of law-abiding citizens in all walks of life also saw their lives ruined. Teachers and professors were dismissed with no way to appeal their 'invisible blacklisting'. If denounced by a colleague, someone in insurance or broadcasting could lose their entire livelihood. When the news is full of hysterics claiming that Red traitors have infiltrated government bureaucracies and even the military, who will listen to a schoolteacher who once supported a politically unpopular cause?

Nowhere was the bite of the Blacklist felt stronger than in the profit center of New York television, where so much money was being made that nobody wanted to rock the boat. Just like witchfinders from the Inquisition of old, the loyalty companies helped the networks purge their ranks of undesirables, on the basis of old affiliations, hearsay and innuendo. Deprived of his career for several years, screenwriter Walter Bernstein packs The Front with autobiographical details, including the ulcers brought about by worry. In a major subplot, actor-comedian Zero Mostel recreates real incidents that happened to him personally.

Deli cashier and bookmaker Howard Prince (Woody Allen) is approached by his old friend Al Miller (Michael Murphy), a successful pro TV writer. Because of the Blacklist, Al suddenly cannot get a job. Is Howard willing to put his untarnished name on Al's scripts so they can be sold to the networks? For ten percent of the writing fees, all Howard need do is pretend to be a writer, attend a few meetings and turn in Al's final scripts. Eager to earn some easy money, Howard starts working as Al's "front". He soon has a girlfriend in production assistant Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci), who is impressed by "his" writing talent. Howard also begins fronting for Al's friends Delaney and Phelps (Lloyd Gough & David Margulies). The ex-bookie foolishly begins to believe that he's part of the creative process, rather than just a necessary inconvenience. He becomes aware of the grave injustice of what is happening only when his new friend comic performer Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel) is blacklisted and can find no way to placate the self-important, pitiless executives at the "Freedom Information Service". The Red-hunters eventually connect Howard to the three blacklisted writers... and the witch hunt turns on him as well.

The Front is always amusing, yet Walter Bernstein's script grows darker as Howard Prince develops a conscience about what's going on around him. At first a happy opportunist with dollar signs in his eyes, Howard gets a swollen head, adding insult to injury when he starts critiquing his friends' work. He learns his place when the show's producer (Herschel Bernardi) shoves him into a room to do a quick rewrite of a script -- Howard is like the girl in Rumpelstiltskin, suddenly asked to spin a pile of straw into gold. If The Front were told in the gritty NYC style of the cynical Sweet Smell of Success, it might be difficult to watch. We can easily imagine a shark like Tony Curtis' Sidney Falco playing his friends' predicament for all he can get. The writers would be turning out shallow, moralistic pap for TV drama shows, while engaged in a grim existential struggle for survival.

The pressure of this precarious situation so affects Al Miller's ulcer that he winds up in the hospital. Florence is disgusted when her superiors at the TV studio treat the Blacklist opportunists as something to be appeased at any cost. Professional cowardice is the order of the day. Once the hex is in against Hecky Brown, he becomes persona non grata. The socially oriented Hecky dies inside when former glad-handing associates and employers suddenly turn their heads away at his approach. It's as if the popular performer no longer exists.

Zero Mostel's performance puts most Supporting Oscar nominees to shame -- it's both brilliant and heartbreaking. The Borscht Belt comedian adds a touch of nuttiness to the movie while illuminating the terrible personal tragedies experienced by some Blacklistees. Hecky Brown is based partly on Mostel's own experiences, especially an incident in which the sleazy proprietor of a Catskills resort cheats him of half his fee simply because he knows that Hecky has no choice because he needs the money. Most of Hecky's story is borrowed from that of actor Philip Loeb, who was labeled as a communist for his union activities, and unceremoniously dropped from the cast of his enormously popular TV show, The Goldbergs.. Mr. Loeb's story did not have a happy ending.

Immersed in his own films, Woody Allen took this acting-only assignment because he believed in the subject matter and respected the filmmakers. It was our first opportunity to see Woody in non-clown mode, in a serious role. Allen is wonderful -- this is probably his only screen character that isn't undercut with comic detachment. Howard Prince grows from a position of willful ignorance to taking a stand for common decency and loyalty to his friends. The only righteous path is to resist the Congressional committee, the Freedom Information Service and all their corrupt minions.

It's telling that The Front lands right between Allen's comedy Love and Death and his breakout seriocomic hit Annie Hall. Director Martin Ritt's no-frills direction resembles Woody's own later style. Directorially speaking, the only difference I caught is that Martin Ritt frequently overhangs dialogue and audio across scene transitions. The screenplay sets up the 1953 context with a montage of newsreel footage -- Marilyn Monroe, Joe McCarthy, the atomic spies the Rosenbergs -- set off against Frank Sinatra's optimistic pop tune Young at Heart. The uplifting conclusion making Howard a hero in handcuffs is perfectly acceptable, even though few if any Blacklist victims experienced anything so positive. Essayist Julie Kirgo cites the Sinatra song again: "Fairy tales can come true".

The end credits list several actors and creatives by name and the year they were blacklisted: Martin Ritt, Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough, Joshua Shelley. In 1952 actor Lloyd Gough won a featured role in the Technicolor RKO picture Rancho Notorious, but was blacklisted before it was released. Howard Hughes solved that problem by having Gough's name and his character removed from the credits and cast list.

Twilight Time's Blu-ray of The Front is a perfect encoding of this entertaining favorite. I've previously seen it only flat on cable viewings, and Michael Chapman's widescreen images are very handsome.

Composer Dave Grusin's work has its own Isolated Score Track. An original trailer is present as well. I listened to and enjoyed the commentary with actress Andrea Marcovicci and Twilight Time's Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo. Ms. Kirgo's engaging essay presents plenty of interesting information, such as the fact that Walter Bernstein based Howard Prince's three writer clients on himself, Abraham Polonsky and Arnold Manoff.

It's nice to see Woody Allen play a genuine moral hero for once; his committee testimony that finishes the film is a fine piece of work with only the slightest comic payoff. I recommend that readers check out the courageous and daring real testimony of actor Lionel Stander, as recorded in Eric Bentley's eye-opening book Thirty Years of Treason: Stander feeds the committee questioning him some really effective double-talk as well as sound arguments why their Inquisition is a farce. He doesn't name names. As one might expect, the actor was put on the list of un-friendlies and "informally" stripped of his right to practice his profession.

By Glenn Erickson