The Front (1976) Martin Ritt

Front1

   The Hollywood Blacklist was one of the most notorious outcomes resulting from the creation of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Originally formed in 1938 to investigate American citizens with Nazi affiliations, the committee became famous in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. This occurred when a House of Representatives run commission began to investigate the private lives of American citizens suspected of being members, sympathizers or having any sort of connection to the Communist Party.  Soon after, ten Hollywood writers and directors, the famed Hollywood Ten, were cited for contempt and each one was sentenced to jail for refusing to testify before the HUAC.

   Front   Written by Walter Bernstein and directed by Martin Ritt, both victims of the Blacklist, the film stars Woody Allen in this tale of nebbish luncheonette cashier and part time bookie, Howard Prince. Howard’s childhood friend Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy), a writer of live TV dramas, informs him one day that he is no longer employable. He has been blacklisted by the Freedom Information Service, a group working for the TV networks who screen employees suspected of Communists ties. Miller explains to Howard he needs to write under another name. He needs a real person to put his name on scripts and submit them to the network. Alfred offers to pay Howard ten percent of the income if he is willing to help him out and act as a “front.” Desperate for money, and a loyal friend, Howard not fully realizing the potential implications, agrees to the deal. Soon Howard finds himself a successful and in demand television writer “fronting” not only for Alfred but for other blacklisted writers. His work 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.

 

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THE FRONT: from left: Woody Allen, Andrea Marcovicci, 1976

   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, even beginning to reject some scripts submitted to him by the writers he’s fronting as beneath his expected standards. Hecky meanwhile, is being hounded by the blacklisting group and is “encouraged,” for his own good, to spy and inform on co-workers. Co-workers, like Howard who the agency has been looking into but cannot find any proof he was ever a party member. However, the investigator adds when talking to a TV exec, they cannot prove he was never a party member either. Everyone is suspected of guilt until proven innocent.

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   Howard’s problems begin to escalate. First the producers need an immediate rewrite on a show. Remember, this was the time of live television drama. They needed it immediately and hold him hostage on the set until he submits the new pages. He manages to avoid this near disaster by getting Alfred to sneak in the revisions. However, this turns out to be only the beginning of Howard’s problems. Hecky, continually hounded by the investigators, is finding it more and more difficult to get a job. The committee wants him to give up Howard and others. Depressed, he commits suicide, jumping out of a hotel window. The investigating committee continues to look into Howard’s background. Then there is Florence who has been dating Howard. She decides to quit her job. Fed up with the investigations and the destruction of so many careers and lives she plans to publish a pamphlet exposing the dirty underhanded tactics of the committee and the television station. She also wants Howard to quit his lucrative writing job and join her in the crusade as a writer. He is finally forced to admit to her that he is not a writer but a “front” for friends who are blacklisted. We also learn the F.B.I. has been keeping an eye on him, looking into 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 however, has no political ideologies to confess. He is admittedly very shallow and his only interest in all of this was helping a friend and making money. The committee wants him to name names, the names of his friends which he refuses to do. After continually attempting to evade answering their questions, he tells the committee to “go fuck themselves.” In the film’s final scene, Howard, handcuffed to a law officer, is embraced by Florence and cheered off by supporters as he heads off to jail. On the soundtrack as the film ends, Frank Sinatra’s Young at Heart.

   front55   Martin Ritt and Walter Bernstein, both of who were blacklisted in the early fifties, knew each other since those early days of live TV. They 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 many years. However, both were nervous about making a serious drama that would turn out to be too preachy. Additionally, they had doubts about their ability to get the film financed. No one would want to do a serious film about the Blacklist. It was still too contentious a topic. Ritt and Bernstein then came up with the idea of doing the film with a lighter approach yet with serious overtones. It would make the film more acceptable. The studios would demand a big name to help protect their investment. 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). The role was a stretch but it wasn’t Hamlet either.  Bernstein is given sole credit for the script, still 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.[1] At one point, Howard is told to change a holocaust scene in a script because one of the advertisers is a gas company.

   Ritt and Bernstein were not the only artists associated with the film who were affected by the blacklist. Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi and Lloyd Gough were all victims. Hecky’s suicide by jumping out of a hotel window had a real life connection. Actor Phillip Loeb (The Goldbergs), a friend of both Mostel’s and Bernstein’s, committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills while in a room in New York’s Taft Hotel.

   At the time of its release, The Front was met with mixed reviews. Some critics claiming it was not strong enough a statement or it was filled with too much liberal sentimentality. What they missed was that the film is more a character study than a film making a political statement. Sure it’s political, but as Vincent Canby wrote in his New York Times review, “It dramatizes the experiences of some of the victims of that time when, on charges that never had to be substantiated, successful writers, directors, actors, producers could be blacklisted and thus denied employment in television and motion pictures.”[2]

   The Blacklist ruined many peoples’ lives, destroying their careers and livelihood without proof or cause. It turned friends and colleagues against each other. It was an ugly time in our country where narrow-minded politicians preached hate and fear reaching out to many blind followers. Let’s hope we are not heading back in that direction.

Notes:

[1] Evanier, David, 2016, Woody: The Biography St. Martin’s Press, New York. Pg. 192

[2] Canby, Vincent, October1, 1976, Screen: Woody Allen is Serious in ‘Front,’ New York Times

 

This is my contribution to CMBA’s “Words, Words, Words” Blogathon. Check out more fascinating posts at the link below.

http://clamba.blogspot.com/2016/04/its-time-for-cmba-spring-blogathon.html

 

 

 

 

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15 comments on “The Front (1976) Martin Ritt

  1. Love this film – and you do it justice. I saw “Trumbo” earlier this year and kept thinking of “The Front.” One thing this blogathon is proving – writers are the foundation to a free society. Keep writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A shameful era which many have examined, but “The Front” from the perspective of those impacted, yet still told with that wry outlook, comes closest to experiencing the emotions, not just the outrage.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ClassicBecky says:

    John, this is a particularly excellent article about a wonderful film. I agree with Marsha and Paddy, freedom in writing and the ability to do fine ironic humor are spotlighted in this movie, and oh so important!

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Greco says:

      Indeed! Humor is sometimes the only way folks here something that otherwise they would not pay attention to. We all need to keep writing!

      Like

  4. I’m ashamed to say I have never heard of this film. It looks fantastic! I must see this ASAP. I bet it has a lot of very interesting things to say. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. classicfilmtvcafe says:

    A great choice for this blogathon, John. I agree that THE FRONT is more of a character study than political statement. Although I think Woody is respectable as the lead, I believe an actor like Peter Falk would have brought more bite to the role. There was a commonality among Woody’s roles during this period of his career, so I kept waiting for the one-liners in THE FRONT. Still, it boasts a smart screenplay and reflects on a sad time for the entertainment industry.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. John Greco says:

    Rick, your are pretty much on target. Some critics at the time of the film’s release felt that with Woody in the film it lost a level of seriousness that another actor, like Falk, would have brought. Ritt and Bernstein tried to balance the seriousness of the subject with a lighter touch. Do they succeed? I guess that is up to the individual viewer.

    Like

  7. Vienna says:

    I caught up with this film after seeing Trumbo and writing a piece for my blog,(Vienna’s Classic Hollywood), “Trumbo and the Blacklist”. I thought The Front was very good and ,through the Zero Mostel character, conveyed the awful effects of being blacklisted.
    Researching the blacklist was fascinating. To hear folk like Robert Taylor,Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou condemn people without any evidence was frightening. Worst of all were the studio owners in New York who were simply afraid they’d lose business, so they instituted the blacklist – which is what the 1947 congressional committee wanted.
    Incidentally senator Joseph McCarthy didn’t become involved till 1950. It was congressman J.Parnell Thomas who headed the infamous 1947 committee.
    Ironically Thomas was convicted of corruption and ended up in the same prison as two of the Hollywood Ten.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Greco says:

      Taylor, Cooper and Menjou were awful people in that respect. So many lives and careers were ruined. I have not read the book, Trumbo and the Blacklist” but will have to dive into it one of these days.

      Like

      • Vienna says:

        Sorry,John, if I wasnt clear. My post was called “Trumbo and the Blacklist”. The 1948 book I referred to is called “Hollywood on Trial.” It is very good.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I need to see this movie! The Blacklist is fascinating–great addition to the blogathon, too!

    Liked by 1 person

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