Judge Clark Douglas is only a front working for a blacklisted web critic.
Our review of The Front, published March 18th, 2004, is also available.
America's most unlikely hero.
"Take care of yourself. The water is full of sharks."
Facts of the Case
It's the 1950s, and Howard Prince (Woody Allen, Annie Hall) is one of America's most successful television writers. The only problem? He doesn't actually write any of his scripts, but rather serves as a "front" for several blacklisted screenwriters who wouldn't be able to get work otherwise. Howard manages to maintain the illusion for quite some time, but things get complicated when the government begins suspecting him of having Communist sympathies. Meanwhile, beloved comedian Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel, The Producers) finds himself forced to spy on Howard for the sake of getting his own name off the blacklist. Will the mounting pressure force Howard and his associates to crack?
In the 1950s, up-and-coming television director Martin Ritt found himself blacklisted. His career was in its early stages, so by the time the "red scare" died down he was still able to start fresh in the world of cinema (eventually going on to direct such fine films as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Hud and Norma Rae). However, many in the industry weren't so lucky. Writers, actors and directors of all sorts had their lives ruined simply because they refused to name names, and many were never able to regain their lost prestige once the nation came to its senses. Ritt's The Front is the director's heartfelt tribute to the people who stood strong in the midst of that difficult time, and a raised middle finger to the merciless members of HUAC. It's arguably the director's most personal film, and it's held up quite well over the years.
Whenever The Front is discussed, the first thing people tend to mention is that the film marks Woody Allen's first "dramatic" role. Honestly, though, Allen is pretty much playing a typical Allen character within a more dramatic context than his own films usually offer. He's a quick-witted, nervous New Yorker who tends to fret a lot when he's placed under pressure. A typical exchange:
Woman: "I love your script—it's really about people."
However, Allen's fretfulness does indeed feel a bit different this time around, because he's not being suffocated by his own neurosis or paranoia but by the very real threat HUAC poses. It's amazing what a little context can do, and a genius bit of casting (a better choice than more conventional leading men like Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, both of whom were being considered for the role).
Effective as Allen is in the part, the show is stolen by the great Zero Mostel, who encapsulates the tragedy of the era in his big, sweaty, heartbreaking performance. One of the film's best scenes features Mostel debating with an unmovable government official. The actor cracks jokes, makes logical arguments and generally expresses bewilderment at his sudden inability to find any work, but eventually comes to the realization that he's dealing with a completely soulless bureaucrat. It's one thing for the government official to keep referring to Mostel's character as "Mr. Brown" despite the man's repeated pleas of, "Call me Hecky." However, it's another thing entirely when Mostel tosses out a killer one-liner and the government official doesn't even crack a half-smile. These guys aren't joking around.
Ritt isn't the only former blacklisted talent involved with the film. Mostel was blacklisted too, as was screenwriter Walter Bernstein and actors Herschel Bernardi (Irma la Douce), Lloyd Gough (Earthquake) and Joshua Shelley (All the President's Men). Given the exceptionally personal nature of this flick for those key players, it might have been easy for the filmmakers to fall prey to the trap of permitting their outrage to overwhelm the film. However, it's a consistently well-balanced and deftly directed movie that does a fine job of blending humor, warmth, anger and sadness. Only in the film's defiant final line does Ritt really provide a real sense of outraged catharsis, and it's a perfectly-helmed moment (segueing directly into a funny, sad, dialogue-free closing scene underscored by Frank Sinatra's melancholy "Young at Heart").
The Front (Blu-ray) has received a solid 1080p/1.85:1 transfer from the good folks at Twilight Time. Like many '70s flicks, it's a little on the dingy-looking side, but it was never a visually astonishing film to begin with. The image offers strong detail and is relatively free of flecks and scratches. The DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio track is perfectly satisfactory, too, as this is a dialogue-driven film that doesn't rely on any complex sound design. The dialogue and music are consistently crisp and clean. Supplements include an audio commentary with actress Andrea Marcovicci (who plays Allen's co-worker and love interest) and film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, an isolated score track that highlights Dave Grusin's fine, tuneful work, a trailer and a booklet.
The Front isn't quite a staggering achievement on the level of All the President's Men or Chinatown, but it's nonetheless a fine piece of socially-charged '70s cinema that boasts a stellar central performance from Allen, a terrific supporting turn from Mostel and strong direction from Ritt. Recommended.
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