Movies We Like
During one of the ugliest periods in American political history, as the Cold War hit hysteria, a drunk congressman named Joseph McCarthy managed to destroys thousands of American lives and careers with his House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC would accuse people of being Communists (many of the accused at one time may have belonged to the then totally legal Communist Party or donated to causes that were Russian-related—this was years earlier when Russia was our ally against Germany). To clear your name you needed to name names and praise HUAC. Most famously many in Hollywood (almost always Jewish folks) were called to testify; some played ball with McCarthy and were considered “friendly witnesses” (Sterling Hayden, Elia Kazan) while many others refused to testify and either went to jail or were blacklisted from working.
Screenwriter Walter Bernstein was one of those blacklisted, but by the end of the ‘50s many gutsy producers began to break the blacklist by hiring the recently unemployable. Bernstein made a comeback writing the script for Fail-Safe and eventually wrote The Front, a semiautobiographical memoir of the period. Besides Bernstein the film is full of blacklisted talent on both sides of the camera, including actor Zero Mostel and Director Martin Ritt (Hud, Norma Rae).
Howard Prince (Woody Allen) is a two-bit Brooklyn hustler; he’s in constant gambling debt and is a schmuck in every way. When he’s approached by a childhood friend, blacklisted television writer Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy, who would play Allen’s old pal again a few years later in Manhattan), to work as a “front,” delivering Miller’s scripts under his name, the apolitical Prince embraces the scheme as another way to make a buck. Eventually Miller hooks him up with a group of writers and Prince starts fronting for all of them, making himself a very successful writer (though he never has any understanding of the material he delivers). He has a romance with an idealistic woman who works on the show, Florence (Andrea Marcovicci), who falls for his genius though she’s baffled that he’s a writer who never wants to discuss writing. Most tragically Prince befriends the show’s star, Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel), who himself is being blacklisted and, like many victims of the blacklist, suicide becomes his only way out.
The blacklist eventually makes its way to Prince and like many before him he is forced to choose between his new, comfortable income or standing up to HUAC. Prince has to find some inner consciousness for the first time in his life and his testimony leads to a powerful ending and one of Allen’s best moments as an actor. The casting of Allen in the lead was clever (happening just before his career took the massive evolutionary step the next year with Annie Hall). He brings a comic tone to the story that doesn’t exist in the actual script; a more conventional leading man of the period (say, Robert Redford) would have brought star power but may have left the material a little duller.
Other films ranging from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to On the Waterfront secretly commented on McCarthyism (both positively and negatively) but The Front may be perhaps the first major film on the subject (though I do vaguely recall a McCarthyism subplot in The Way We Were). It’s okay that The Front’s politics may be simplistic and that the only stand the film makes is that the blacklisting was a bad thing—it was the first and already ahead of its time. Unfortunately, gutless filmmakers ever since ,when approaching the same subject, have continued to make their heroes apolitical schmucks who truly are victims (as opposed to people who really believed in what they are accused of). Though Good Night, and Good Luck got it right, most other films on the subject usually range from lame (Guilty by Suspicion) to offensively terrible (The Majestic). As a basic introduction to the terrors of the blacklisting and a solid piece of entertainment The Front delivers. As a chance to see Woody Allen play an eventually heroic character The Front also stands as a fascinating notch on his quietly impressive acting filmography.
The Front was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay (Walter Bernstein).