Starring Woody Allen and Zero Mostel
Directed by Martin Ritt and written by Walter Bernstein
Reviewed by Kenneth Lyen
Rating 4 stars out of 4
The Front (1976) is a film set in New York during the McCarthy witch hunts against the communists some 50 years ago. It is about filmmakers and actors who were blacklisted as socialists or their sympathizers. The theme is eerily topical because of the recent blacklisting of singer-songwriter Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam) and other Muslims by the United States government.
Woody Allen neither wrote nor directed The Front. Instead he plays the lead role of a neurotic bum, Howard Prince. He is a deli cashier and pathetic part-time bookie, with no talent and no political convictions. His desires are making money with the least effort possible, and getting laid.
Howard is approached by an old friend, Alfred Miller, a TV writer who is blacklisted as a communist sympathizer. Unable to find work, Miller persuades Howard to submit scripts under his name. In other words Howard acts as Millers "front." When the scripts are sold, he keeps a percentage of the fees. Easy money. But ever greedy, Howard asks to be the front for two other scriptwriters. He is quickly recognized by the television producers as a brilliant newly discovered screenwriter.
There are several wonderful comic moments in the film. One example is when the beautiful script editor, Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci), tries to discuss intricacies of the script, but Howard manages to evade answering her. A subplot involves the love relationship between Howard and Florence. He is worried that she only loves him because of his writing prowess, rather than who he really is. Meanwhile, Florence feels that Howard should fight the blacklist, instead of looking the other way.
Another funny scene is when Howard gets the better of himself and assumes the role of a critic, telling his authors that their works are substandard.
All goes well for Howard until the FBI begins investigating his life, and it is not long that Howard himself is asked by the House Committee on Un-American Activities to name names. His lack of moral fiber and his willingness to cooperate with the authorities leads to his break up with the highly principled Florence.
Zero Mostel gives one of his best performances as the genial clown Hecky Brown whose career is threatened when he is blacklisted. He represents the eras many dashed spirits, helpless when confronted with an enemy he cannot fight or understand. Mostels life falls apart, and as he changes from a successful comedian to an unemployed one, his despair gives the film a tragic tonality. Zeros performance is indeed memorable, and well deserving of the British Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. It was one of his last film roles, as he died in 1977.
The Front picked up an Oscar nomination for Walter Bernstein's original screenplay. Andrea Marcovicci was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Acting Debut.
The director Martin Ritt, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and supporting actors Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Joshua Shelley, and Lloyd Gough, were all on the blacklist. Martin Ritt survived those dark years working as a drama teacher. Unfortunately many others had their careers destroyed, some even taking their own lives. Hence this film is Ritt and his colleagues contribution to the memory of the victims of McCarthyism. Its tone is not bitter, but comedy is used to gain insight and understanding about the absurdity of this insane era in American history.
There are several films made about the McCarthy witch hunts. Guilty by Suspicion (1991) stars Robert de Niro playing the role of a Hollywood film director who is asked by the House Committee on Un-American Activities to divulge the names of his friends whom he saw at some communist meetings. The Majestic (2001) is a film in which Jim Carrey plays the role of a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter who is involved in a car accident and loses his memory. Citizen Cohn (1992) is a made for television movie about Roy Cohn, a ruthless McCarthy era prosecutor starring James Woods. Point of Order (1964) is a documentary compiled from TV footage of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, in which the Army accused Senator McCarthy of improperly pressuring the Army for special privileges for Private David Schine, formerly of McCarthy's investigative staff. There is also a film adaptation of Arthur Millers The Crucible (1996), which uses the Salem witch hunts of 1692 as an allegory of the McCarthy anticommunist frenzy.
The Front is a comedy with serious drama boiling underneath, struggling to erupt through. It is one of those rare films which is effective as a comedy while simultaneous delivering serious yet touching social commentary on the evils of blacklisting. Of all the films about McCarthyism, The Front affected me the most profoundly. I consider it to be the finest film to be made on this topic. It is a brilliantly written and acted morality play with a subject matter that is still highly relevant today especially with regard to the potential backlash against the Muslim minorities in America and Europe.
I recommend this film most highly.
The DVD of The Front is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality is good, and the Dolby Digital 2.0 sound quality satisfactory. There are English, French, Japanese, and Korean subtitles. Unfortunately, apart from two theatrical trailers, there are no bonus materials.