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In 1976, director Martin Ritt and screenwriter Walter Bernstein brought a very personal subject to the big screen: the Hollywood Blacklist. Both men were victims of the anti-communist hysteria that gripped the television and movie community during the investigations by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that began in 1947. For refusing to participate in naming names of suspected Communists, both men were unable to find work for years. The HUAC was finally abolished in 1975; the following year, The Front was released, starring Woody Allen and Zero Mostel, himself a blacklist victim as well. Despite the presence of two comedians in leading roles, Ritt warned that this was no comedy, arguing, "Instead, what the audience will get is a film filled with bitterness and irony that reflect the ludicrousness of the time of the blacklist."
Ritt, known for such film classics as Hud (1963) and Norma Rae (1979) was haunted by the McCarthy era: "They wanted me to turn my friends in. A rat does that, and has to live with it the rest of his life." Matters became complicated when Ritt's close friend and mentor, director Elia Kazan, notoriously began to comply with HUAC's requests for information. In Picking Up the Tab: The Life and Movies of Martin Ritt by Carlton Jackson, he recalled, "Oh, Kazan and I still talked, but it was never the same. His behavior didn't help our relationship." Long-time friend Bernstein, who collaborated with Ritt on Paris Blues (1961) and The Molly Maguires (1970) in later years, slept on the director's couch while he waited out his blacklisted period. Like many boycotted writers, any creative work he could manage during this time was tenuous: largely underpaid and completely uncredited, many writers functioned under pseudonyms or used another person as a "front" to appear as the author. This latter premise formed the basis for the film, with Woody Allen in the title role.
Allen, with five major films under his belt including What's New, Pussycat (1965), Bananas (1971), and Sleeper (1973), was a fast rising star in Hollywood. Despite his growing popularity, however, he was not the first choice for the lead; Ritt and Bernstein had been considering such big names as Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman for the role. When Ritt asked Bernstein, however, "What about that kid?," Allen was cast in his first straight dramatic role as Howard Prince, a cashier-turned-front for a blacklisted writer. Ritt later realized the impact of the actor in the film, observing that "Audiences go in expecting a Woody Allen comedy, and come out shattered."
With his only role in the project as an actor, a rarity for Allen, he was frank about his discomfort. In a 1976 interview for the New York Times, he revealed: "From the beginning I had enormous reservations about doing a film which I had not written and over which I would have no directorial control." He later conceded, "The reason I did The Front was that the subject was worthwhile. Martin Ritt and Walter Bernstein lived through the blacklist and survived it with dignity, so I didn't mind deferring to their judgment."
Zero Mostel, who immortalized the leading roles in The Producers and Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway, experienced an eight-year hiatus from film after being blacklisted. His role of Hecky Brown, an actor struggling under the pressure from the communist hunters, was loosely based on real-life actor Philip Loeb, a personal friend of Mostel. Loeb was targeted by the HUAC investigators and fired from his leading role in the television series The Goldbergs (1949-54) in 1951; increasingly despondent, he committed suicide in 1955. Mostel's motivation for being involved in the project was not only personally motivated but also with the intent to educate another generation of Americans. As he pointed out in his biography by Jared Brown, "It's part of this country, and a lot of kids don't even realize that blacklisting ever existed." Ritt agreed: "I think it had a special significance for all of us, and I include Woody in that, though obviously he wasn't blacklisted. I had a good time working with Z. He could be difficult. He didn't always get along perfectly with Woody. But they respected each other."
In addition to Ritt, Bernstein, and Mostel, supporting actors Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough, and Joshua Shelley were also victims of the blacklist. The closing credits, designed by Stephen Frankfurt, note this alongside the names of all six men as well as the year they were blacklisted. Reviews were mixed; the New York Post declaring the film, "A light comedy forged out of dark and authentic pain." Legendary critic Pauline Kael gave the movie overall a thumbs down, but admitted, "It has, however, a theme one can't be against. At its most appealing, this movie says that people shouldn't be pressured to inform on their friends, that people shouldn't be humiliated in order to earn a living." Bernstein earned an Oscar® nod for Best Original Screenplay. In a final ironic twist, The Front took top honors at the International Film Festival of Tehran, Iran - a bizarre event in which one of the world's most restrictive societies lauded a film celebrating the spirit of creative freedom.
Producer: Robert Greenhut, Charles H. Joffe, Martin Ritt, Jack Rollins
Director: Martin Ritt
Screenplay: Walter Bernstein
Cinematography: Michael Chapman
Film Editing: Sidney Levin
Art Direction: Charles Bailey
Music: Dave Grusin
Cast: Woody Allen (Howard Prince), Zero Mostel (Hecky Brown), Herschel Bernardi (Phil Sussman), Michael Murphy (Alfred Miller), Andrea Marcovicci (Florence Barrett), Remak Ramsay (Hennessey).
by Eleanor Quin