We are transported back to 1953 with a series of newsreel clips featuring Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe, Harry Truman, The Korean War, Bomb Shelters, the Rosenberg’s while on the soundtrack Frank Sinatra sings “Young at Heart.”
Woody Allen stars and Martin Ritt directs this tale of nebbish luncheonette cashier and part-time bookie, Howard Prince. Childhood friend Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) now a writer of live TV dramas informs him one day that he is no longer employable, blacklisted by the Freedom Information Service, a group working for the TV networks screening employees suspected of being communists. Miller tells Howard he needs another name, a real person and offers to pay Howard ten percent of his income if he is willing to put his name on the cover of the scripts he writes and act as a “Front.” Desperate for money, and a loyal friend, Howard, not fully realizing the potential implications, agrees to the deal. He is soon a successful and in demand writer ‘Fronting’ not only for Alfred but two other blacklisted writers. His success draws praise and admiration from the show’s producer Phil Sussman (Herschel Bernardi), and script editor Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci) who he soon begins dating. Howard also meets Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel) a former Vaudeville comedian now on television, and under the watchful eyes of the Freedom Information Service.
Howard’s success leads to fancy clothes and a ritzy apartment. He also comes to believe the praise bestowed upon him by the network brass and he begins to reject some scripts submitted to him by the writers as beneath his standards. Hecky meanwhile, is hounded by the blacklisting group and is “encouraged,” for his own good, to spy on and inform on co-workers, like Howard who the agency has been looking into but cannot find any proof he was ever a party member but, the investigator adds when talking to a TV exec, they cannot prove he was never a party member either. Everyone is guilty until proven otherwise.
Howard’s problems begin to escalate. First the producers need an immediate rewrite (it’s live TV) and hold him hostage on the set until he submits new pages. He manages to avoid this near disaster but it is only the beginning. Hecky, continually hounded by the investigators, is finding it more and more difficult to get a job, commits suicide. The investigating committee continues to look into Howard’s background. Florence quits her job deciding to write a pamphlet exposing the underhanded tactics of the committee and the television station, and she wants Howard to quit his lucrative writing job and join her in the crusade. In addition, the F.B.I. has been keeping an eye on him, finding out who his friends are, even snapping photos of Howard morosely viewing Hecky’s funeral from afar. He is soon brought before a HUAC sub-committee for questioning. Howard has no political ideologies to confess, he admittedly is very shallow and his only interest was making money. They want him to name his friends which he refuses to do. After continuing to evade answering their questions, he tells the committee to “go fuck themselves.” In the final scene Howard, handcuffed to a law officer, is embraced by Florence and cheered off by supporters as he heads of to jail. Frank Sinatra’s “Young at Heart” plays on the soundtrack.
Ritt and Bernstein, both of whom were blacklisted in the early fifties, knew each other since those early days of live TV and also worked together on two movies (Paris Blues and The Molly Maguires) prior to “The Front.” The director and writer had been discussing making a film about the blacklist for years but were nervous about a serious drama being too preachy and also finding it hard to get financing. The studios would demand a big name to help protect their investment. Bernstein felt a lighter approach with serious overtones could make the film more acceptable. Dustin Hoffman’s name was mentioned. Then Woody’s name came up. It would be his first straight role. Allen hesitantly agreed to be in the film (In a New York Times article by Guy Flatley, Allen pleaded with Ritt to replace him with Peter Falk), it was a stretch but it wasn’t “Hamlet” either. While Bernstein is given sole credit for the script the film contains lines that seem very Woody like. For example, when Florence discusses her upper class childhood life, she says, “the biggest sin was to raise one’s voice.” Howard responds, “In my family, the biggest sin was to buy retail.” Later when he admits to Florence he is not really a writer, he adds “I can barely write a grocery list.” However, some of the humor is a bit darker, at one point Howard is told to change a holocaust scene in a script because one of the advertisers is a gas company.
Woody was uncomfortable throughout the filming. He felt out of his element and he had no control over the making of the film, yet it is the ‘Woody’ persona that helped make the film more appealing to the general movie going audience, and the studio, who would not sit through an overbearing diatribe on the blacklist. Though both Ritt and Bernstein were passionate about wanting to make the film, the results are rather uneven, at times fiery and other times rather passionless and cool toward its subject matter, surprisingly so for this director whose films include “Norma Rae”, The Great White Hope,” and “Sounder.” Part of the reason may be due to some of the other cast members. Andrea Marcovicci is lifeless in a role that required anger, as is Michael Murphy’s dull blacklisted writer. It is actually Allen’s performance, and Zero Mostel’s, that hold the film together. They are the Yin and Yang of the film, polar opposites not only physically but in humor and the audiences they speak too. Woody’s character is one whose only interest is in making money and reaping his new found fame as a writer until he finally transforms into a man who takes a moral stand and responsibility at the end of the film. Howard’s inquisition before the committee reveals the absurdity of the proceedings when in order to avoid jail time he is offered the opportunity to name names even if it is the dead Hecky Brown. Mostel’s Hecky Brown is based partially on his own experience of being blacklisted and the indignities he faced. The Catskill scene of being chiseled down on salary is based on an incident Mostel came face to face with. Bernstein also blended into Hecky Brown the story of actor Philip Loeb whose career tanked after he was blacklisted. The pressure of the blacklist for Loeb, along with being the sole support for his mentally ill son was finally too much. Depressed, he overdosed on sleeping pills in a room at the Hotel Taft in New York. In his book, “Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist,” Walter Bernstein discusses Loeb’s ordeal in detail. Other blacklisted cast members appearing in the film include, Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough and Joshua Shelley.
There are plenty of villains in this story; politicians, the Government, television executives, corporate sponsors all who formed a loose alliance conspiring to mock the real freedom America stands for.