In the early 1950s Howard Prince, who works in a restaurant, helps out a black-listed writer friend by selling a TV station a script under his own name. The money is useful in paying off gambling debts, so he takes on three more such clients. Howard is politically pretty innocent, but involvement with Florence - who quits TV in disgust over things - and friendship with the show's ex-star - now himself blacklisted - make him start to think about what is really going on.
It's not often Woody Allen relinquishes creative control and stars in a movie he hasn't directed or written, but he cared enough about the subject matter of 'The Front' to put himself in someone else's hands. Those hands belonged to director Martin Ritt and writer Walter Bernstein, and their incisive, darkly funny, yet predominantly serious look at the Communist witch hunt and blacklist that rocked the film and television industry in the 1950s stands as both a searing and inspiring testament to those who endured the bullying and harassment of a venomous organization and emerged with their integrity and principles intact. Yet the salute to those who persevered - as well as those who were destroyed - is not confined to the characters who populate the screenplay; it also extends to some of the cast and crew - most notably Ritt and Bernstein - who were themselves blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for their supposed Communist sympathies and refusal to identify colleagues who might have a tangential affiliation with the party. Such an intimate connection heightens the material's impact and makes 'The Front' one of the most important films to tackle one of the most shameful episodes in American history.
Much more sedate than most Woody Allen pictures of the period, 'The Front' uses humor judiciously as it strives to paint an accurate portrait of a turbulent era. It's unfathomable to think a number of American artists lost their livelihood and were forced to work underground, or not at all, simply because they signed a petition or marched in a parade two decades before, especially in a country that prides itself on advocating and protecting civil liberties. Looking back, it's easy to classify the paranoia and fear that gripped the nation in the 1950s as comical, and Ritt and Bernstein do an excellent job depicting this almost surreal atmosphere and infusing just the right amount of jocularity into it. Most of the one-liners in 'The Front' not only provoke laughs, but also act as potent zingers that skewer the outrageous ideals that inspired such evil in the name of patriotism.
After an affecting montage of black-and-white newsreel clips from the early 1950s, featuring images of such icons as Senator Joseph McCarthy (at his wedding, no less!), Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, baseball great Joe DiMaggio, and sex symbol Marilyn Monroe - all set to the mellifluous vocals of Frank Sinatra crooning 'Young at Heart' - we zero in on the modest, brainless existence of mild-mannered Howard Prince (Allen), who blithely toils as a New York City diner cashier. Not much fazes or excites Howard, but his life changes drastically when his former school chum Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy), a successful television writer, loses his job on a weekly anthology series and winds up on the blacklist. The desperate Alfred, who hopes to continue working, suggests Howard act as his "front" - meaning Alfred will still write his scripts as usual, but Howard - for a 10% cut - will put his name on them and pass them off as his own. Eager to help out his friend (and pay off some gambling debts), Howard accepts the offer, and soon becomes a TV bigwig, earning a stellar reputation as a top-notch scribe and winning the affection of a young, idealistic production assistant, Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci), who admires his (fake) intellect, (fake) talent, and (fake) character. Soon, other blacklisted writers approach Howard, and he acts as their front as well.
Howard also becomes pals with a renowned comedian, Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel), who appears on the show for which Howard "writes." Government investigators, however, uncover questionable events in Hecky's past, and the network, afraid of a possible scandal and audience and sponsor erosion, fires him from the cast. Florence quits in protest, and soon the politically neutral Howard begins to develop a social conscience, which is put to the test when the committee calls him to testify and puts pressure on him to name names.
Bernstein's original screenplay nabbed the movie's only Oscar nomination, and the manner in which it mixes comedy, angst, and heartache against the backdrop of an intellectually absurd yet frighteningly real situation is inspired. Several of the characters are modeled after real people, including Bernstein himself (he's the ulcer-ridden Alfred), and a few scenes are based on actual events, which lend the proceedings an admirable air of authenticity. Though Hollywood doesn't usually mind self-reflexive films that shine an unfavorable light on the industry, there's something so distasteful and embarrassing about hanging so many talented and hard-working professionals out to dry that it's surprising a major studio would produce a picture that focuses on such contemptible acts of betrayal. Humor sugarcoats the subject to a certain degree, as does the air of nostalgia that permeates Ritt's storytelling technique, yet a sharp edge consistently pokes through and drives many critical points home.
Allen embraces his more subdued role, though he still pretty much portrays himself - or, more accurately, his screen persona. Always the nebbish, Allen underplays well, which allows his ultimate growth and enlightenment to more fully resonate, yet plenty of comic moments nicely shade his portrayal. Mostel, who was also blacklisted during the 1950s, fully embodies Hecky, which remains one of his most memorable parts. His manic energy and theatricality suit the character and make his trials and tribulations doubly affecting. As Allen's activist girlfriend, Marcovicci is a vision of loveliness, but lacks the spunk a stronger actress would bring to the role. And yet it's refreshing to see Allen play opposite someone other than Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow, and his oil-and-water chemistry with Marcovicci somehow works.
'The Front' may not be remembered as one of Martin Ritt's or Woody Allen's finest films, but it's a notable work that documents a troubling time in a deceptively direct and probing fashion. Sometimes a masterfully crafted quip cuts quicker to the heart of a matter than protracted drama, and that's certainly the case here. 'The Front' is seriously funny in the truest sense of that phrase, and it makes sure we will never forget the pointless suffering so many innocent people endured during a hopelessly naive age.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Front' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Inside lies the BD-25 single-layer disc, as well as an eight-page booklet, which features a perceptive essay by writer Julie Kirgo along with several black-and-white and color scene shots. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted in the player, the static menu immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Twilight Time produces another excellent transfer of a catalogue release. This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering features marvelous clarity and a natural grain structure that maintains the film-like feel. Superior contrast boosts the picture's depth level, and outstanding clarity brings even remote background elements into sharp focus. Only a couple of faint errant marks dot the pristine print, and no digital imperfections or enhancements muck it up. The lush cinematography of Michael Chapman ('Taxi Driver,' 'Raging Bull') is beautifully rendered, with both interior and exterior scenes exuding a rich glow, and a host of colors possess plenty of pop. Mostel's red bandana, the rust tones of several outfits, and Marcovicci's orange coat all catch the eye, while rich black levels and natural fleshtones help create a pleasing palette that never wavers.
Patterns, such as the flowery upholstery in a hospital room, and textures like wool and tweed come across well, shadow delineation is quite good, and crisp close-ups allow us to drink in all the varying facial features of the eclectic cast. Fans of this film couldn't ask for a spiffier transfer, which makes this period picture look brand new.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track supplies solid if unspectacular sound. Age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, and crackles, are completely absent, and a wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows without a hint a distortion. The velvety vocals of Frank Sinatra, whose vintage recording of 'Young at Heart' opens and closes the film, possess wonderful warmth and presence, and excellent fidelity punches up Dave Grusin's jazzy score. The all-important dialogue - whether whispered or shouted - is always clear and comprehendible, and though ambient effects come at a premium, some nice subtle shadings round out the track. This mono mix certainly won't grab your attention, but it seamlessly complements the film, and its unobtrusive nature allows us to concentrate more fully on the story and visuals.
Because Woody Allen didn't direct 'The Front,' we get slightly more supplemental material on this disc than on other Allen films. Even more would be nice, but beggars can't be choosers.
Audio Commentary – I haven't been a huge fan of the commentary duo of Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman on previous Twilight Time releases, but actress-singer Andrea Marcovicci, who plays Allen's activist girlfriend in the film, joins them here, and her participation adds an essential element of authenticity that considerably raises the quality of this track. Marcovicci relates a number of entertaining anecdotes that provide critical insights into the personalities of Allen and Mostel, while also giving us a good feel for the on-set atmosphere. She recalls her whirlwind audition for the part (and Allen's impersonal reaction to her during the process), praises many cast members, names various locations, and discusses how the film was difficult to market because it wasn't as funny as the movies Allen and Mostel typically made. Kirgo calls 'The Front' "a blacklist fairy tale with a happy ending," and provides plenty of historical context for the period. The trio's relaxed rapport draws us into their conversation, and fans of the film will find their remarks insightful and revealing.
Isolated Score Track – The nuances and shadings of Dave Grusin's score can be more fully appreciated by listening to this isolated music track.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) – The original theatrical preview includes both dramatic and comedic elements, making it difficult to determine what type of movie 'The Front' really is.
A straightforward and absorbing look at the far-reaching and devastating effects of the film and television blacklist in the 1950s, 'The Front' hammers home some important points as it deftly mixes comedy and drama. Don't expect a raucous Woody Allen farce; despite some well-placed jokes and a bit of tomfoolery, Martin Ritt's penetrating film is serious stuff, and Allen, Zero Mostel, Andrea Marcovicci, Michael Murphy, and the rest of the cast respect the material. Though Allen didn't write or direct the picture, it still bears his stamp, and in a change-of-pace part, he asserts himself well. Twilight Time's Blu-ray presentation features a top-notch video transfer and solid audio, and though supplements are thin, you get more here than with most Allen productions. 'The Front' may not be one of Allen's signature films, but his loyal legion of fans will appreciate this limited to 3000 release, which earns a hearty recommendation.