Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Unsung!: The Front

Some critics think this film trivializes the blacklist era….

I beg to differ.

Like many special, older films, The Front just seems to get better with age. Its story, its performances, its production design, and the entertaining way it makes its very serious point all put many current films to shame.

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Howard Prince (Woody Allen), a restaurant cashier and part-time bookie, is asked by his childhood friend Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) to front for him: Miller is a television writer who has been blacklisted and needs someone to submit his scripts so he can get paid. Prince agrees to do this for a ten percent cut of Miller’s fee. Prince is quickly hailed as a great new talent in television and begins to front for two other blacklisted writers. Prince meets a low-level television producer (Andrea Marcovicci) who falls in love with him based on her fondness for his work. Meanwhile, down-on-his luck comedian Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel) sees his life ruined by the blacklist. Prince wonders whether he should stand up against the threat of the blacklist or keep his mouth shut and enjoy the many fruits of his unusual situation.

In the imperfect chronology of my brain, I had been assuming The Front was made after Allen’s landmark film Annie Hall. (“Imperfect Chronology Of My Brain” sounds like a band that plays occasionally at Cabaret Metro). I was wrong; The Front precedes Annie Hall by a year. Though Allen only acts in The Front and does not write or direct, I wonder if the experience of playing a more “real person” than the cartoon characters he had been playing in his earlier comedies helped shape a more mature work like Annie Hall. Surely, there had to be “missing links” between the wonderful but silly Love and Death and the more realistic masterpiece (and Oscar Best Picture winner) Annie Hall. Perhaps critics’ favorable responses to his performance in The Front convinced Allen that it was time to evolve.
The Front’s intricate production design is another reason to see the film. Because of the actual (awful) hairstyles and fashions in the 1970s, I find period films made in the 1970s often get the look of the past wrong. The studios, the restaurants, the apartments – indeed, even the city streets in The Front drip with 1950s actuality. The vintage cars are obviously real, but the people somehow seem vintage too. (Dazed and Confused, Back to the Future, and Zodiac are three other films that capture the recent past correctly and admirably.)

As a movie actor, Zero Mostel suffered from what I have taken to calling the “Bert Lahr Conundrum.” Often, performers who do most of their work on stage and are known for playing outsized characters (Teyve in Fiddler on the Roof for Mostel, and The Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz for Lahr) have a hard time scaling it back for the cameras; the infectious and amazing energy they ooze onstage can seem grotesque in the more intimate medium of film. Watch Mostel chew the scenery in The Producers, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, or The Hot Rock (though that behavior certainly fits the characters he plays) and you will see what I mean. Perhaps because he is playing a performer in The Front, Mostel was able – possibly for the only time in his film career – to create a recognizable human being with whom the audience can sympathize. His portrayal of sad, doomed comic Hecky Brown is one of the film’s other highlights.

Producer Samuel Goldwyn famously said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” I have always given The Front a lot of credit for addressing the serious issue of the Hollywood Blacklist in an approachable, entertaining way. Far from trivializing this shameful period in our history, I feel The Front may have been more successful at educating its audience about the true tragedy of blacklisting than any stodgy PBS documentary ever was. At the time of its release, critics slammed The Front for making light of the Hollywood Blacklist. I disagree. Indeed, by giving this tragedy a human face and looking at it with a sense of humor, the film leaves viewers with a feel for the very human toll of this unfortunate time. In this sense, The Front is far superior to the similar but preachy Guilty By Suspicion.

Allen’s Howard Prince and his actions reveal the true scourge of the Blacklist – a selfish person who will willingly turn a blind eye to what is happening around him as long as it does not effect him personally. If this character (really an audience surrogate) can undergo a political awakening and emerge a hero, then perhaps so can we all.

Have I mentioned The Front is a comedy? I do not mean to spoil the film by giving away its jokes, but here is a sample:

A writer looks for trouble.

No, wrong. A lunatic looks for trouble.

Director Martin Ritt is a wonderful storyteller, and this is a great story, well-told. The screenplay by Walter Bernstein was nominated for an Oscar. Ritt and Bernstein were both blacklisted in the 1950s; so were many other members of the cast. This leads to one of the most sobering end credit crawls ever, as each blacklisted name is followed by the years in which they were not allowed to work in film or television.

The final reason you need to see The Front is that it has one of the greatest last lines in movie history. (It is The Front’s final comment on blacklisting.) I shan’t spoil it here!

The Front shows up occasionally on TCM. It is also available on DVD and for both rental and purchase on ITunes and Amazon Video On-Demand.


  1. I had no idea this movie even existed (I know, I know). Thanks, I'll make a point to check it out. :-)

    My latest NEW-TO-ME TRILOGY:

    'And introducing Marcelino as J.M. Vargas' :-P Steven Soderbergh's OCEAN'S ELEVEN (2001) on HD-DVD.

    How do you say 'smug' in Dutch? Soderbergh's OCEAN'S TWELVE (2004) on HD-DVD.

    The 'analog players' get one more crack against gambling's 'digital world' in Soderbergh's OCEAN'S THIRTEEN (2007) on HD-DVD.


    NEXT ON TAP: Roberto Rossellini's "WAR" TRILOGY.