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.