Since his directorial debut in 1969, Woody Allen has rarely appeared in movies he himself did not at least write. A rare exception was The Front (1976), a comedy-drama made by his regular producers, Jack Rollins (nearly 99 today!) and the late Charles H. Joffe. It proved a very worthwhile project, a movie about, directed, written, and co-starring real-life victims of the Blacklist. The film strikes a somewhat uneasy balance tailoring its script, somewhat, to Allen’s familiar screen persona with fact-based anecdotes and even a few autobiographical ones.
At the time of the film’s release, victims of the Blacklist had been able to work openly for only the past decade or so, the House Un-American Activities Committee having only been abolished the year before, and then as now attitudes toward American Communists or communist sympathizers remain divided. But for those unaware of how talented (and predominantly Jewish) artists were tragically and unjustly treated, The Front is like a crash course in dark period of American history.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of this Columbia release is exceptionally good. The film had always looked pretty grainy in previous home video incarnations, but their disc is almost impressively clean and includes a couple of good extra features.
Lowly cashier and small-time bookie Howard Prince (Allen) is approached by school chum Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy, Manhattan), who needs a “front” so that the blacklisted television dramatist can continue to support himself. Offering a percentage of his writing income, Miller has Prince present himself to the network as a talented new writer. Miller’s teleplays, submitted under Prince’s name, impress drama anthology producer Phil Sussman (Herschel Bernardi) and script editor Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci). Prince hits on Florence, already dating somebody else, but through the tenderness and insight of “Prince’s” scripts she gradually finds herself drawn to the supposed scribe. So in demand are Prince’s teleplays he agrees to front two more blacklisted writers (one played by Lloyd Gough), which in turn gets Prince out of perennial debt.
Meanwhile, the anthology show’s serio-comic host, comic Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel) runs afoul of the network after his past participation in Communist meetings is exposed by Freedom Information Services, an organization pattered after Red Channels. Sussman is forced to fire Hecky (while vehemently denying his past political associations is the reason) and the comic is forced to accept a low-paying gig in the Catskills, where the hotel owner, taking advantage of Hecky’s inability to otherwise work, blatantly short-changes his previously agreed-upon fee.
The Front is unusual in the way it grafts something like a typical Woody Allen movie (the schlemiel seducing a beautiful woman with his self-deprecating humor, the Bob Hope comedy-influenced ruse constantly in danger of completely unraveling) with a straightforward dramatization of how the Blacklist operated and its devastating impact on its victims. Allen’s performance isn’t great; he’s a bit awkward in the straight dramatic scenes especially, though for the most part he’s okay. He’s also playing against type insofar as he’s playing a three-time loser: a bookie who can’t pay his debts, and a “nearly-illiterate” and apolitical working class New Yorker.
But as a primer on the Blacklist, particularly in terms of its impact on New York-based network television, The Front is all aces. The end credits, in which director Martin Ritt, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and actors Mostel, Bernardi, Gough, and Joshua Shelley (as Sam) are listed alongside the year in which they were blacklisted, validates everything that came before, and usually startles first-time viewers of the film.
Bernstein’s Oscar-nominated screenplay draws on real events. The three writers Allen’s character fronts for were based on Bernstein, Abraham Polonsky, and Arnold Manoff, while Mostel’s character is a composite of Philip Loeb, co-star of the early television comedy-drama The Goldbergs, and Mostel himself. Hecky’s humiliating weekend in the Catskills happened for real to Mostel after he was blacklisted and it’s easy to read a kind of post-traumatic rage in his performance of those scenes. Myriad other moments, from Prince’s complaints that one writer’s latest work isn’t up to snuff to a gas company’s complain about a concentration camp script (it’ll give gas a bad name) likewise really happened.
And humiliation is mostly what The Front is about: pressure from sadistic (and frequently anti-Semite) people in power to pressure the helpless into untenable name-naming, of surrendering friends and colleagues whose political leanings are already known. The Front lays bare this raw bitterness, taking form as a kind of glorious revenge film.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of this 1.85:1 release is positively pristine, with no signs at all of age-related wear or damage, and on larger monitors and screens it’s fascinating to looks at this sometimes anachronistic ‘70s depiction of early-1950s New York. The audio, DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 English, with optional English subtitles, is also good considering its monophonic limitations.
The disc includes an audio commentary featuring Marcovicci and Twilight Time regulars Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo, the latter also providing the disc’s booklet essay. Also included are the original trailer and a limited isolated score (by Dave Grusin) track.