Perhaps the first film we saw
that convinced us that Woody Allen could actually act—i.e., not be his nebbish, nervous comic persona from his early
directorial efforts—was Martin Ritt’s 1976 comedy/drama, The Front, which appeared a year before Allen’s Annie Hall.
The Front was
perhaps the first Hollywood film to tackle the subject of “the blacklist” that
occurred in the movie industry in the late 1940s and throughout most of the 50s.
This abominable practice was due to the investigation of “Communist
infiltration” in Tinsel Town by HUAC—the House Un-American Activities
Committee. It was truly a dark time in U.S. history, one in which friends were
pressured to “name names” or face the prospect of unemployment or worse, such
as jail time. Note that the Hollywood
studio heads were responsible for the actual blacklisting. The powers-that-be
decided to cooperate with HUAC by targeting stars, writers, directors,
producers, and other personnel who may have
had some connections to the Communist Party, even if it was as far back as the
1920s and 30s. It was insane.
Director Martin Ritt, who himself
was a victim of the blacklist, shows us just how insane it really was. The film
was written by Walter Bernstein, also a blacklist victim. Actors Zero Mostel,
Herschel Bernardi, and Lloyd Gough—who appear in the picture—were also once blacklisted.
The Front knows what it’s talking
about. There are laughs, to be sure, but there is also a subtle seriousness to
the proceedings that is frightening.
Allen plays Howard, a lowly
restaurant cashier who is friends with screenwriter Alfred (Michael Murphy).
Alfred gets blacklisted, so he gets Howard to be his “front”—Alfred writes the
scripts and then Howard puts his name on them and takes a percentage of the
fee. The problems start when the scripts are so good that Howard becomes known
as a talented writer and suddenly becomes in demand. Soon he’s the front for
several writers, and of course, it gets out of hand. During the course of the
story, Howard befriends actor Hecky (Mostel), who also becomes blacklisted, as
well as lovely and smart studio script editor Florence (Andrea Marcovicci),
with whom Howard falls in love. How is he going to keep his secret from
Florence, especially when she’s just as enamored of his “writing” as the studio
The Oscar nominated original
screenplay is savvy and biting, Ritt’s direction is assured and knowing, and
Zero Mostel is so good that he should have received a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination
for The Front—but it is Woody Allen’s
performance that is the soul of the movie. He literally lights up the screen
with a fully fleshed-out character that, at the time, was a refreshing
surprise. His passion for the material is evident, and one could almost think
that the film is one of his own from his late 1980s period.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition sports an all-region 1080p High Definition
restoration that looks sharp. It is accompanied by a 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio
soundtrack, as well as an informative audio commentary by Andrea Marcovicci,
and film historians Julie Kirgo (who also provides the booklet notes) and Nick
Redman. Other supplements include an isolated score track (Dave Grusin, composer)
and the theatrical trailer.
As with most Twilight Time
releases, the Blu-ray edition is limited to 3,000 units, so snatch it up before
they’re gone. The Front is a timely
piece of political filmmaking that still resonates, especially today.