It’s 1953 and the House Un-American Activities is targeting suspected Communists and the Hollywood blacklist is in full force.
Television writer Alfred Miller’s (Michael Murphy) name has made the blacklist. No one will hire him and he’s desperate for work. His restaurant cashier pal Howard Prince (Woody Allen) offers to help. He’ll pose as a writer, sell Miller’s scripts under his name and take a small percentage of the sales. Howard will be the front.
The ruse works and soon Howard (and Miller’s words) become a very in demand property. Prince even partners up with two more blacklisted writers. The extra money he’s earning is an added incentive for him to continue playing the part of a talented writer.
During his time accepting accolades, romancing an impressed script writer, working under the spotlight of a growing suspicious government, meeting blacklisted actor Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel) and being called to answer the Committee’s questions himself, Howard gradually discovers just how dangerous and unfair the situation of this witchhunt is. He’s prepared to risk his profitable scheme and his own future by making a stand against the Committee.
Directed by Martin Ritt, The Front is one of the rare occasions where Allen simply starred in a film and didn’t write or direct it. It’s an important story and with the subject and cast they have it should really click. I wish I liked The Front much more. I really do.
For one, it’s never particularly funny. There’s no real laughs. Despite having Woody in the lead and being at his comedic peak he doesn’t get to have any real clever memorable moments or scenes that I take away with.
Even more ironic is that a film about a tv writer busy at work writing great television episodes that are impressing everyone, the writing in The Front doesn’t have any flair of its own. The story is fine, but it’s told in such an ordinary way. It plays rather stodgy and doesn’t bring out as much of the ugliness, tragedy or even the awkward comedy from a cashier masquerading as a hit television writer during the Hollywood blacklist.
It’s almost like a film that safely plays and runs its course without telling much of the story without any kind of style or cleverness of its own.
There are indeed some amusing and dramatic scenes. The highlights for me are the inevitable situation Howard finds himself in of having to rework a script by himself. Him critiquing the writers work telling them to do better. “My name is on this afterall.” Predictable yes, but more of that would be welcome comedic jolts.
Howard doesn’t seem to have much of a problem playing the part of a writer. We even see him being interviewed on television as fame rains down on him and he seems to be handling it all quite well.
Even Howard’s romancing of television script writer Andrea Marcovicci plays as filler. She becomes attracted to him by his writing of course. It’s another charade that Howard puts on and it doesn’t pay off. There’s no sparks between the two, no comedic degree of manipulation of him trying to fool her of his talents on the typewriter.
It’s the dramatic aspects to the film that work much better and is where its power lies. The Front really is more of a drama. Which makes me think the casting of Woody in the lead perhaps wasn’t the best choice.
Zero Mostel finding his life slowly being ruined by the blacklist and becoming more and more pushed out of showbiz is much more compelling. His growing frustration, desperation, anger, depression and despair – that is powerful stuff. His final scene of checking into a hotel – I won’t divulge. However, the scene plays simply, quietly and is the most heartbreaking moment in the film.
The climactic end where Howard is getting grilled by the Committee and is ready to take his stand ends up being more quaint than powerful. Things haven’t built up to such a degree that it becomes the applause worthy moment it should’ve been.
Maybe it would have been more powerful had Howard been less likable from the start. That it was apparent he was greedily taking more and more advantage of the blacklisted writers as the story progresses. If he was much more unsympathetic and clearly had no qualms of profiting from this witch-hunt. Then finally the realization of what he’s been doing, the guilt he suddenly feels and his turnaround would have been much more dramatic and satisfying to see.
Sadly, besides Woody and Mostel the rest of the characters never come to life. They fill in their functional roles for the story, but there’s nothing special that comes from them.
I really wish I liked The Front much more. It’s a powerful story and becomes much more so when you learn so many of the individuals who worked on it were themselves blacklisted (which the credits include the years they were ostracized from the industry).
It’s fine and has good moments, but sadly it never manages to be the great film it should’ve been.