The Front (1976)

Director: Martin Ritt

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Today is Christmas, an increasingly secular holiday that has come to mean gift giving, decorations, big meals with family and friends, favorite movies and music, and leisure for most of the workforce. Those who keep the religious traditions of the holiday go to church to celebrate the birth of the messiah, Jesus Christ, and think about peace and good will among all people. In my capacity as professional killjoy (as evidenced by my reviews of Midnight in Paris and The Artist), I am now going to remind you about the end of the story that began on this date 2,011 years ago—the king of the Jews was crucified, and his message of peace and love repeatedly ignored by generations of warring, racist people the world over.

Which brings me to The Front, which tells the true story of how the American entertainment industry collaborated with the federal government to deprive film and television creatives—many of them Jews—of their livelihood through the use of a blacklist. The blacklist was unacknowledged by studio and television executives; directors, writers, and actors simply were told their work had somehow gone downhill or that they were not a good fit for the material going into production. Why? Because they were Communists or had become “controversialities” by coming to the attention of Commie hunters at the studios or being questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee or the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, headed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Everything from being a full-fledged member of the Communist Party to signing one petition could be grounds for blacklisting, investigation, and imprisonment.

The Front is a tragicomic look at how the blacklist worked and how some people sank and swam in its wake. The film gains all the more energy and poignancy from being told by several blacklisted artists—director Ritt, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and actors Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough, and Joshua Shelley—and including the slightly fictionalized story of blacklisted television star Philip Loeb.

The film focuses right from the start on Howard Prince (Woody Allen), a cashier and bookie in New York City who owes money all over town and has tried the patience and pocketbook of his brother Myer (Marvin Lichterman) for the last time. He has lunch one day with his boyhood friend, writer Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy), who tells him that the television studios have stopped buying his scripts. Miller has been blacklisted, and desperate to keep working to support his wife and three children, he asks Howard if he will act as Miller’s front—the person who will put his name on Miller’s scripts and be a physical presence with the network executives and producers. Offering him 10 percent of whatever he gets for the scripts cements the deal with the willing Howard. Howard brings a script to the show Miller used to write for and becomes the new darling of producer Phil Sussman (Bernardi), as well as the idol and boyfriend of WASP script editor Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci).

Naturally, this overnight sensation must be checked out by the network’s anti-Communist investigator (Remak Ramsay). Soon, his ties not only to Miller, but also to two other blacklisted writers (Gough and David Margulies) for whom he fronts, are discovered, and Howard must agree to a token appearance before HUAC. As the network is desperate to keep using him, Howard is assured that if he gives up just one name to the committee, he can keep riding the gravy train.

The Front largely eschews an overtly political angle by focusing on the real-life consequences of the blacklist and the various kinds of people who got caught up in the maelstrom. Howard does what he does initially out of friendship and then to make some real money. He moves into a nice apartment and buys tailor-made suits, but he does the right thing by squaring his debts with his brother and the gamblers whose bets he took. He’s thrilled to be dating a beautiful shiksa and horrified when she quits her lucrative job rather than fire a blacklisted actor, but he calls her out for romanticizing the struggle against the blacklist and loving his talent instead of him when he confesses that he can barely write a grocery list. Woody Allen indulges a lot of his own relationship shtik in the film, and this aspect of The Front is the weakest.

By contrast, the plot line involving Hecky Brown (Mostel), the television star who suddenly doesn’t seem right for his hit show, is easily the most affecting. He and Howard become friendly during the short time their paths cross at the television studio, and it’s easy to see why. The flamboyantly funny Hecky isn’t so different from Howard—he’s basically apolitical and in need of money to support his family. His “Communist past” can be put down to trying to get laid and supporting the Soviet Union during World War II when they were allies of the United States. He’s willing to write letters, even spy for HUAC to keep working, but to no avail. He has to bum a ride with Howard to a Catskills resort to perform for many times less than his normal fee; the resort owner (Shelley) is only too happy to take advantage of Hecky’s misfortune by cutting the meager fee even further.

Hecky’s humiliation makes life unbearable for him, and one night, he makes a visit to Howard to apologize for his tantrum at the resort, checks into a hotel, and takes delivery on a bottle of champagne from room service. He toasts himself in a mirror, goes into the next room, and moves out of the frame. Moments later, a sheer curtain blows into the frame, and the camera moves to reveal the bottle of champagne sitting on the sill of an open window. The film craft in this scene is superb, with its understated image of Hecky seeing himself only in terms of how he is mirrored back to himself by his adoring audience, and an off-camera suicide that offers a beautiful, diaphanous image of horror waving angelically at the audience. Mostel, a personal friend of Philip Loeb, infuses his performance with all the love he had for the man whom he personifies as Hecky Brown; there wasn’t a dry eye in my house after this scene played.

Writer Bernstein captures the collusion between the entertainment moguls and HUAC in a scene of nauseating obsequiousness. Network head Harry Stone (MacIntyre Dixon) all but gives the committee members blow jobs for their selflessly patriot service to the country, and they gobble it up like greedy lapdogs. The exchange is a good reminder not only to Howard, but also to the audience that such egos demand tribute and obedience and that naming names pays them tribute and builds their appetite for power. When prompted to give up a name, for example, Hecky Brown, who can no longer be hurt by these sharks, Howard realizes that to do so would be to confirm the committee’s verdict on the harmless entertainer and give his employer and government an out for their shameful behavior. His parting words, shocking coming out of the mouth of Woody Allen, are “Fellas… I don’t recognize the right of this committee to ask me these kind of questions. And furthermore, you can all go fuck yourselves.”

Allen handles the comedy in the film well, particularly the daily travails he has to negotiate when the studio asks for last-minute rewrites and he has to find a way to get them from Miller. Ritt directs these panicked scenes with verve, and film editor Sidney Levin maintains a rhythm for this scene—indeed, for the entire film—that shows the precarious roller coaster all of the characters are riding, exhilarating for Howard at first, then getting increasingly burdensome. The slow stammering Allen engages in when stonewalling the committee is one of his best scenes on camera in any film and builds a tense exasperation in the committee members that is a wickedly pleasurable experience.

The Front begins and ends with Frank Sinatra singing “Young at Heart,” a hit song in 1953-54, the time period during which the film takes place. The lyrics, “Fairy tales can come true/It can happen to you/If you’re young at heart,” give way to the bitter irony of the second verse “You can go to extremes with impossible schemes/You can laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams/And life gets more exciting with each passing day.” Perhaps in shame for helping to take down Philip Loeb, Columbia Pictures coproduced this film. For blacklisted artists who had been living the fairy tale of the American Dream until their youthful activities brought down the wrath of a paranoid nation, The Front offers them public redemption—and the paycheck many of them were denied during this dark time.

  • Robert spoke:
    27th/12/2011 to 11:25 am

    I’ve loved this movie since I was a kid! But for different reasons along the way, obviously. It was Woody Allen that brought me to it, but only later could I admire what it achieves: showing the human tragedy at the payment end of craven politics. But it has an unfortunate timelessness — it reminds us of the thousand ways this kind of political bullying is still alive and well today.

    On a less heady level, you can feel Ritt strapping down the Woody persona to fit his more nuanced goals. Fun to see the squaring off of the manic Woody. And interesting to think what lessons Allen gleaned from the older director while prepping his own next feature.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/12/2011 to 2:07 pm

    Robert – I didn’t see this film until I was an adult, so I was able to appreciate both its lighter and darker aspects. Yes, this kind of bully never seems to go out of style, and more’s the pity. Despite the unfortunate romance features that seem to have come from a Woody Allen feature, I thought Allen did a nice job throughout. Thanks for stopping by.

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