Hiding in Plain Sight: THE FRONT (Columbia 1976)

When a film gets labeled as a “comedy-drama”, chances are good you’re in for an uneven film. Such is the case with THE FRONT, Martin Ritt’s 1976 movie about the 1950’s blacklist. There are plenty of things to like about the movie, especially in the performances, but the somewhat heavy-handed script by Walter Bernstein results in an undeniably mixed bag.

Woody Allen  stars as Howard Prince, a lowly cashier perpetually up to his glasses in gambling debts, whose childhood friend Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) is a blacklisted TV writer. Miller asks Howard to “front” for him, putting his name on Miller’s scripts so the networks will buy them, in return for a 10% commission. Soon the network clamors for more of Howard’s “work”, and he begins fronting for two other blacklisted writers. Although Woody didn’t write or direct THE FRONT, he’s still basically playing his nebbishy ‘Woody’ persona, but with a bit more of an edge: he winds up exhibiting bravery when he’s called before the House Un-American Activities (HUAC) committee. His final word to the committee is dead on target. Howard Prince is so close to Woody Allen’s characters in his own films, I get the feeling he rewrote some of his dialog (but have no proof of it).

The great Zero Mostel is on hand as Hecky Brown, a TV comic blacklisted for his alleged Communist sympathies. Mostel himself was a victim of blacklisting (as were writer Bernstein and director Ritt), and knew firsthand the suffering endured by not being allowed to ply his trade because of his political beliefs. Zero wasn’t just a funny man, but a fine dramatic actor in his own right; as the doomed Hecky he flawlessly walks the tightrope between humor and pathos. He and Woody work well together, and his swan song scene in the hotel room is a beautifully haunting tour de force. Zero Mostel, star of Broadway (FIDDLER ON THE ROOF) and movies (THE PRODUCERS), passed away a year after THE FRONT was released.

The major snag I find in THE FRONT is the portrayal of the Red hunters and their acolytes as cardboard villains without motivation. I understand both Ritt and Bernstein were bitter about their treatment during this dark time in American history, I get it, but the “bad guys” are delineated as so shallow it slants the movie way, way too far in one direction. I certainly do not condone the actions of HUAC and snakes like Senator Joe McCarthy; I’m a firm believer in individual freedom. But the anti-Communist characters are so one-note, there’s no real sense of why they’re out to get the ‘Commies’ unless you know a little something about history. Unfortunately, I find many younger people these days have no idea what the blacklist was all about, or even how and why it happened here in America.

The supporting cast features three other actors who landed on the blacklist – Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough, and Joshua Shelley. Andrea Marcovicci has her best screen role as a left-leaning TV producer who falls in and out of love with Woody. Norman Rose’s stentorian tones add gravitas to the small part of Woody’s defense lawyer. Other cast members of note include Danny Aiello, Joey Faye (who was once Zero’s comedy partner), Lucy Lee Flippen, Charles Kimbrough, David Margulies, and Josef Sommer.

While THE FRONT is uneven, I thought the performances (especially Woody and Zero) saved the film’s script from becoming too preachy. The blacklist era was not America’s finest hour; censorship of any kind is abhorrent to me, and should not be tolerated. If you’re unfamiliar with the period, and this post has piqued your interest, even a tiny bit, I suggest you do some research. Google it. Go to your local library or bookstore. Educate yourselves… we can’t let it happen here again. Not in America.

 

 

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Strange Days Indeed: Woody Allen’s SLEEPER (United Artists 1973)

(I’m posting a bit earlier than usual so I can head up to the Mecca of baseball, Fenway Park! Go Red Sox!!)

Full disclosure: I lost interest in Woody Allen around the time he decided to become a “serious” filmmaker beginning with INTERIORS. Sure, I thought ZELIG and PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO were funny, and A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHTS SEX COMEDY had its moments. But for me, the years 1969-1977 were Woody’s most creative period, spanning from the absurd TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN to the Oscar-winning ANNIE HALL. Landing right about midway in that timeline stands his brilliant sci-fi satire SLEEPER, which owes more to Chaplin and Keaton than Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.

The fun begins when Miles Monroe (Allen) is woken from his cryogenic sleep in the year 2173. Two hundred years earlier, Miles had been the proprietor of the Happy Carrot Health Food store, and went in for minor surgery on his peptic ulcer. Somehow he was cryogenically frozen, and is now a stranger in a strange land. The premise just serves as an excuse for Allen to indulge in some of the wackiest schtick and sight gags he’s ever done. Some of the funniest involve him disguised as the robot servant of wacky poet Luna (Diane Keaton, Woody’s significant other at the time). Ersatz robot Woody gets into a battle with a bowl of pudding that grows to Blob-like proportions, gets wrecked on the Orb (a futuristic drug that’s passed around at a party), and is brought in by Keaton to have a head change, where he engages in a sped-up slapstick fight that’s reminiscent of the great silent comedies.

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Allen and Keaton have a wonderful comic chemistry, a sort of 70’s neurotic version of Tracy and Hepburn. Keaton’s Luna is a ditzy bubblehead who comes into her own when she joins the underground movement against the oppressive totalitarian regime, and the two of them sparkle as they infiltrate government headquarters masquerading as doctors and kidnap The Leader, or rather what’s left of him… seems the rebels have blown him up and all that remains is his nose, which is about to be cloned! This scene features a send-up of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY complete with the voice of HAL (Douglas Rain) as a medical computer. A hysterical scene in the rebel camp has Allen and Keaton parodying A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, with Woody as Vivien Leigh’s Blanche and Diane imitating Brando’s Stanley Kowalski!

A Woody Allen film isn’t complete without his trademark one-liners in the grand tradition of his heroes Groucho Marx and Bob Hope (1), and SLEEPER is packed with some gems. Asked to become a spy by the underground, Allen quips, “I’m not the heroic type, I’ve been beaten up by Quakers!”. Keaton asks, “What’s it like to be dead for 2,000 years”, to which Allen replies, “It’s like spending a weekend in Beverly Hills”. When she inquires nonchalantly if he wants to “perform sex”, he rakishly answers, “I’m not up to performing, but I’ll rehearse with you”. Nervous about infiltrating the government, Allen remarks, “I’m 237 years old, I should be collecting Social Security”. Allen’s political philosophy comes into play when he states to Keaton, “Political solutions don’t work, I told you, it doesn’t matter who’s up there, they’re all terrible”. The movie’s last line, with Keaton asking him since he doesn’t believe in God, science, or politics just what does he believe in, is a classic: “Sex and death, two things that come once in my lifetime. But at least after death, you’re not nauseous”.

The jokes and gags come fast and furious, from escaping the stormtroopers via The Hydraulic Suit, to the Yiddish robot tailors voiced by comedians Jackie Mason and Myron Cohen, to Woody discovering the wonders of The Orgasmitron, all set to an incongruous Dixieland Jazz score by Allen and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band. SLEEPER is silly and ridiculous and loads of fun, though some of the jokes are a bit dated (spoofing Howard Cosell, for example). Nevertheless, it’s one of Woody’s best efforts, and as a whole it holds up nicely. Woody Allen is still making films today, one of the last of a dying breed of 70’s filmmakers who helped change the course of cinema. He’s a genius of the cinema of the absurd, and SLEEPER is one you won’t want to miss!

(1) according to Conversations with Woody Allen (2007) by Eric Lax (New York City; Knopf), SLEEPER is dedicated to Marx & Hope.

CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt 3: Those Swingin’ Sixties!

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The 1960s were turbulent times, and nowhere was that more evident than in the decade’s pop culture. Hair was longer, skirts were shorter, music was louder, and The Silent Majority was pissed! Rock and roll, superspies, and sexual swingers ruled the screen. Here are five short looks at five films from The Swingin’ Sixties:

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VIVA LAS VEGAS! (MGM 1964; director George Sidney)

Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret sing and dance their way through this romp set in America’s gambling capital. Elvis is a race car driver, Ann’s an aspiring singer, and Cesare Danova plays Elvis’s rival on the race track and in Ann’s heart. Veteran musical director Sidney helps make this one of Presley’s better vehicles. Lightweight fluff for sure, but damn entertaining! Fun Fact: Danova was MGM’s first choice to play the title role in their 1959 epic BEN-HUR.

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WHAT’S NEW, PUSSYCAT? (United Artists 1965; director Clive Donner)

Peter Sellers is a lecherous German psychiatrist, Peter O’Toole a fashion magazine editor who’s irresistible to women, and Romy Schneider is the one girl O’Toole’s in love with in this zany sex farce written by Woody Allen. Woody also makes his screen debut as O’Toole’s pal who also loves Romy. Woody’s his usual neurotic self, and his screenplay skewers his usual targets (relationships, sexual mores, therapy). Still fresh and funny, with songs by Dionne Warwick, Manfred Mann, and that great Tom Jones title tune. Fun Fact: Watch for Richard Burton in a quick cameo at a strip club!

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MODESTY BLAISE (20th Century-Fox 1966; director Joseph Losey)

A colorful but minor spy spoof based on the British comic strip. Thief turned adventuress Modesty Blaise (Monica Vitti) and her partner Willie Garvin (Terence Stamp) are hired by the British Crown to stop a diamond heist by archvillain Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde). Rossella Falk and Clive Reville add to the fun as Gabriel’s criminal cohorts. Campy piece of pop art from overrated director Losey. Bogarde does make a marvelous bad guy, though. Fun Fact: One of only two English speaking films for Italian icon Vitti (the other being 1979’s AN ALMOST PERFECT AFFAIR)

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IN LIKE FLINT (20th Century-Fox 1967; director Gordon Douglas)

More spy camp with supercool James Coburn as superspy Derek Flint. This sequel to OUR MAN FLINT finds our hero battling an organization of females bent on world domination. Lee J. Cobb is back as Lloyd Kramden, head of intelligence agency ZOWIE (Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage), and a chance to see him in a comedic role…not to mention in drag! Full of gadgets, girls, and improbable situations, IN LIKE FLINT is okay, but not as good as its predecessor. Fun Fact: The late Yvonne (Batgirl) Craig has a small role as a Russian ballerina/spy.

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THE SWEET RIDE (20th Century-Fox 1968; director Harvey Hart)

THE SWEET RIDE tries to be too many things – a surf movie, a biker flick, a mystery, a love story, a comedy – and fails on all counts. I liked it when I first saw it years ago, but on rewatching, it just didn’t click with me. It does have some good points: Jacqueline Bisset’s hot, Bob Denver’s pretty cool, and psychedelic rockers Moby Grape make an appearance. But Tony Franciosa is just annoying in his role as an overaged tennis bum, and the rest of the cast is so-so, except for the great character actor Charles Dierkop as biker ‘Mr. Clean’. Fun Fact: Dierkop also played the Killer Santa in the exploitation classic SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT.

Now here’s a link to  the bombastic Tom Jones singing his hit, the theme from WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT?:

https://youtu.be/VBdSqk78nHw

More in the series:

  1. Cleaning Out The DVR Pt 1
  2. Cleaning Out The DVR Pt 2