America's most unlikely hero.
It's the 1950s and for my dollar you can't get much schmuckier than Howard Prince (Woody Allen, Hollywood Ending)—part-time restraint cashier, part-time bookie, and all-around loser. When one of Howard's longtime friends, TV writer Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy, Batman Returns), is blacklisted for alleged "communist ties," his career begins to plummet. His solution? Hire Howard to be his "front." In other words, Alfred writes the scripts while Howard's name is on the cover page. The two find this to be such a lucrative business venture that Howard brings on other blacklisted writers to do the same. Howard is even able to strike up a friendship with "Hecky" Brown (the late Zero Mostel in one of his final film roles), a comedian who also finds himself placed on the infamous blacklist. Things run smoothly for Howard, until the FBI starts snooping around his life. When Howard is summoned before an investigative committee and pressed to name names, things take a dramatic turn in a story about one of Hollywood—and America's—most disturbing historical times.
For those walking into The Front assuming it's a typical Woody Allen comedy, think again. Though there are humorous moments, The Front feels more like a drama trying to climb its way out of the film's comedic parameters. One of a handful of films starring but not written or directed by Allen, The Front is a cautionary tale about an embarrassing period in American history that makes Author Miller's "The Crucible" look like a Sunday Easter egg hunt. In the 1950s, the American government tried to purge the country of communist sympathizers—a modern day "witch hunt." This mass hysteria created a blacklist in Hollywood that put many writers, actors, and directors out of work (including director Martin Ritt and star Zero Mostel.) Because so many who worked on The Front were involved in this blacklist, the film can be seen as somewhat of a payback—the cinematic equivalent of saying "up yours" to the government and the 1950s Hollywood establishment. To that end, The Front is a scathing story that works on a level rarely seen on film—biting the Hollywood hand that feeds it.
As entertainment goes, The Front is good, but certainly not great. The performances range from excellent (Zero Mostel at his eye bugging, wisecracking best) to only mediocre (Woody Allen—clever zingers = snooze). Often it's hard to tell if the movie wants to be funny or deadly serious. For instance, the fate of poor "Hecky" Brown doesn't seem to be keeping in tone with the rest of the film. Director/producer Martin Ritt shows restraint with his subject, even if the proceedings tend to get bogged down with lots of television screenwriting mumbo jumbo. Written by Walter Bernstein (Fail-Safe, another blacklisting victim), The Front feels slightly uneven—more comedy would have been a plus—but sports enough introspective moments to make it worthwhile.
The Front is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Considering the source material and age of this film (it's almost 30 years old), Columbia has done a very fine job at making sure the picture is in good shape. There are a few imperfections in the transfer, including a small amount of grain and some washed colors. Otherwise, I was pleasantly surprised at how attractive this image looks. The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 in English. There isn't a lot to report about this sound mix. It's a front heavy track that doesn't utilize any directional effects. Not that any are needed, considering this is a straightforward comedy/drama set in the 1950s. Most aspects of the mix are free of any hiss or distortion. Also included on this disc are English, French, Japanese, and Korean subtitles.
The extra features on The Front are floating at the bare minimum—all that's been included are two theatrical trailers, one for Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery and a second for Neil Simon's Lost In Yonkers.
For all its flaws, The Front deals well with a subject Hollywood has generally ignored. The fact that something so dangerous could happen in America is spooky no matter what genre it inhabits.
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