FRONT, THE (director: Martin Ritt; screenwriter: Walter Bernstein; cinematographer: Michael Chapman; editor: Sidney Levin; music: Dave Grusin; cast: Woody Allen (Howard Prince), Zero Mostel (Hecky Brown), Herschel Bernardi (Phil Sussman), Michael Murphy (Alfred Miller), Andrea Marcovicci (Florence Barrett), Remak Ramsay (Hennessey), Lloyd Gough (Delaney), David Marguiles (Phelps), Joshua Shelley (Sam), Marvin Lichterman (Myer Prince), Danny Aiello (Danny LaGattuta), M. Josef Sommer (Committee Chairman); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Robert Greenhut/Charles H. Joffe/Martin Ritt/Jack Rollins; Columbia Tristar Home Video; 1976)
“Although made by those who were punished by being blacklisted during that period, the film disappoints by being so politically mild.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
It’s set during the McCarthy-era witch-hunts of the early 1950s for commies in the entertainment industry. Although made by those who were punished by being blacklisted during that period, the film disappoints by being so politically mild, lacking an ideological basis for its examination and settling instead for a narrative of cloying liberal sentimentality and common man moralizing by stating the obvious that it’s up to every individual to take a stand against their oppressors and blaming the powerful networks for not having the backbone to stand up to those conducting the witch hunt. The film ends on an empty note of cursing out a HUAC sub-committee and having its innocent hero go to jail rather than cooperate with it in naming names. It was the very first commercial Hollywood film to directly take on the controversial subject of the blacklist, with the 1973 “The Way We Were” by Sydney Pollack diverting the theme with a romantic tale. It should have been more powerful, contentious and daring even if one readily agrees with what it says and that the period was a dark time for America and democracy. Those in the film blacklisted by HUAC include director Martin Ritt (“Hud”/ “Norma Rae”), writer Walter Bernstein, and actors Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough and Joshua Shelley.
In the early 1950s Howard Prince (Woody Allen) is an apolitical, poorly read, nebbish loser who is working as a cashier in a Manhattan bar/restaurant and is also a small-time bookie. Laden with heavy gambling debts, he agrees to the proposal of a blacklisted writer friend from back in their high school days named Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) to be a front for him by handing in his scripts under the name of Howard Prince for ten percent–if accepted. To add more income he gets Miller’s two other blacklisted writer friends (David Marguiles & Lloyd Gough) to give him scripts for the same terms. The scripts go over well with TV producer Phil Sussman (Herschel Bernardi) and Howard is hailed as a genius, and lives it up in style and basks in his fame. He soon begins a romance with pretty leftist script editor Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci), who believes he’s a major talent and loves him because he’s such a great intellectual writer–not realizing that he’s barely literate. She will later quit the network over disgust that they cooperate with the reactionary forces and starts a leftist pamphlet. Meanwhile Freedom Information, a witch-hunting consulting firm run by the oily mystery man named Hennessey (Remak Ramsay), to whom the networks submit to on clearing politically suspect employees. They blacklist the popular host of Sussman’s game show, Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel), because he once marched in a May Day parade. The embittered actor in order to get work, agrees to spy on Howard Prince. When the House Committee on Un-American Activities calls Howard to testify, the fix is in by the networks and the sub-committee that he gives up one name and everything will be fine. But Howard has second thoughts and the empty-headed vain character suddenly finds unexpected courage when faced with this decision on the stand.
The part Zero Mostel played was loosely based on his real-life friend, the actor Philip Loeb, who was targeted by the HUAC investigators and fired in 1951 from his leading role in the television series The Goldbergs (1949-54). Unable to get work and growing increasingly despondent, Loeb committed suicide in 1955.
Woody Allen in his “first dramatic role” and the first one he didn’t write or direct, comes off looking good by giving the bland film some needed pep.
Whatever misgivings I might have had about Ritt’s film, it still conveys to the public the fascism, hypocrisy, blatant misuse of power and public indifference at the time that led to these injustices. I’m not sure the American public has learned these history lessons and are not about to make the same mistake in the present, and therefore even this diluted version of the blacklist era has its value as being a tool for information about the not desirous effects of a society that is oppressed. For entertainment purposes, its serious subject matter is made more palpable to the masses by Woody’s comic antics, yet it still takes a stand against those who aim to take away our freedoms and crush our civil rights and somehow manages to be just incisive enough for those unfamiliar with that period to take a look for themselves at how dangerous it is to listen to these phony patriots without questioning their motives.
REVIEWED ON 9/24/2006 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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