In the ’70s (and the ’80s, for that matter), Woody Allen only acted in two movies that he didn’t direct, and both are winners. Yet while Play It Again, Sam (1972) is essentially a Woody Allen movie because he wrote the script based upon his own play, The Front is that true rarity: a for-hire acting gig. It’s not hard to guess why Allen joined the project, because in addition to providing him with a great role, the film chronicles an important period in modern American history. A scathing look a the effects of the anti-communist blacklist that ravaged show business in the ’40s and ’50s by purging left-leaning artists from the mainstream, The Front is a message picture done right, delivering its themes with grace and restraint while also providing rousing entertainment.
The picture’s authenticity and passion steams from the harrowing offscreen experiences of several key players: Screenwriter Walter Bernstein, director Martin Ritt, and actors including costar Zero Mostel were all blacklisted. In the story, which is set in New York during the ’50s, writer Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) learns that he’s about to get blacklisted, so he reaches out to his opportunistic friend, lowly cashier Howard Prince (Allen), for an unusual favor. In exchange for a percentage of Alfred’s profits, Howard is asked to put his name on Alfred’s TV scripts, submit them as if he wrote them, and attend meetings pretending to be a writer. This way, Alfred can continue making a living even though studios won’t officially employ him.
“Fronting” was incredibly widespread during the blacklist era, and it represented a huge risk for everyone involved, but that’s only one of the nuances The Front brings to life. In addition to portraying Howard’s moral conflicts—he becomes an admired and wealthy public figure under false pretenses, and an idealistic TV story editor (Andrea Marcovicci) falls in love with the man he’s pretending to be—the movie depicts the insidious effect of the blacklist on comedian Hecky Brown (Mostel).
An amalgam of several real-life performers pushed off the screen because of their past support for liberal causes, Hecky is a tragic figure in the classic mold, a small man caught in the machinations of political forces he barely understands. Watching the cruel anti-communist crusaders slowly destroy Hecky rouses Howard’s previously dormant conscience, and for anyone who thinks of Allen merely as a joker, it’s startling to see the clarity and intensity of his performance. Allen does justice to Bernstein’s clockwork script, in the same way that Mostel, who was prone to abrasive excess, delivers a humane and poetic portrayal. (This was Mostel’s last onscreen role, and a fitting epitaph for his epic career.)
The best thing about The Front is that it’s a great yarn in addition to being a powerful civics lesson. With Allen delivering zingers in his inimitable style, and with Bernstein carefully depicting the devious way right-wingers persecuted progressives, The Front smoothly balances humor and pathos, all the way from its mood-setting opening montage to its whopper of a closing scene.
The Front: RIGHT ON