This 1976 seriocomedy the first mainstream film about the McCarthy era's infamous "communist conspiracy" witch-hunts and showbiz blacklisting features Woody Allen as the title character. His Howard Prince is a naif who lends his identity to TV screenwriters dragooned out of their livelihoods when their personal beliefs collide with Cold War paranoia and dirt-digging government thugs. Taking a "just acting" break between his own Love and Death and Annie Hall, Allen here is directed by Martin Ritt (Hud, Sounder). The Front is muddled and preaches only to the tenors, muting its chance for incisive and damning satire. But when it does hit the right notes there's something to admire in this personal take on the entertainment industry's "red menace" hysteria, when extortion, lies, and blackmail destroyed careers and lives at the drop of a name.
Michael Murphy plays a TV screenwriter whose left-leaning sympathies make him untouchable by networks in the nervous, oppressive political atmosphere of the early 1950s. So he cajoles his friend Howard to be his "front," with Howard posing as the writer in exchange for a cut of the sales. Soon Howie, who's barely literate, is accommodating a stable of barred writers whose scripts are so successful that he becomes the toast of the industry. He's besotted by the money and attention, including a romance with network staffer Andrea Marcovicci. Meanwhile, desperate TV show host Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel), whose one-time march in a May Day parade years ago now red-flags him, knuckles under to the authorities and "cooperates." So Howie finds himself subpoenaed before the congressional House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) because "his" work is so good and his history so clean that he must, Q.E.D., be a subversive. His moral crucible protect himself or cooperate leads to a "shocking" climactic curtain line that comes 25 years too late to be more than a toothless indulgence.
Hecky Brown's tragic fate was inspired by a real-life blacklistee, actor Philip Loeb. In that and other ways The Front was a semi-autobiographical project. While working in TV during the 1950s, director Ritt and scenarist Walter Bernstein (Fail-Safe) had been blacklisted by HUAC, as had Mostel and others in The Front's cast. The closing credits note the production personnel victimized by HUAC's kangaroo-court "investigations."
So perhaps the talents here were too close to their subject, too emotionally involved to make The Front as fierce as it should be. Conceived in rightful outrage, it's certainly earnest enough. However, instead of dissecting its subject with sharp satirical strokes, the narrative falls into the easy trap of black-hats-vs.-white-hats moralizing that aims only for barn-sized targets, such as the Constitution-flouting pecksniffs who keep secret files on private citizens. Any reminder of the tribulations undergone by the blacklistees serves a useful and eye-opening purpose, but good intentions and a sense of martyrdom don't by themselves fill the glass. This underdeveloped look backward skirts the more complex, yet always timely, material of how and why reactionary fearmongering happens.
As for what is onscreen, Ritt's flat, colorless directing doesn't help the dramatic and comedic components intertwine harmoniously. Allen rehearses his appealing Alvy Singer persona while everyone around him is playing in a tragedy. The comic's familiar tics and rhythms steer us into directions too jokey and good-natured for a film that wants to be an uncompromising indictment. Columbia Pictures had wanted Robert Redford or Warren Beatty before agreeing to Bernstein and Ritt's choice of Allen. According to Allen biographer Julian Fox, early in The Front's development Dustin Hoffman, Peter Falk, and Al Pacino were also considered for the role, and Allen himself suggested that Jack Nicholson might have been a better choice.
As Allen said in a Newsweek interview, "Comedy just pokes at problems, rarely confronts them squarely. Drama is like a plate of meat and potatoes, comedy is rather the dessert, a bit like meringue." What The Front needed was more meat. Still, this uneven curio that goaded McCarthyism a generation after the fact is told with authentic feeling and poignancy. It remains a knowing look at the desperation, temptations, hypocrisy, and principles involved in surviving that shameful (and by no means unrepeatable) time when injustice was called patriotism in America. Bernstein's screenplay gained nominations for the Writers Guild Award and the Academy Award (an original screenplay Oscar that went instead to Network). The 1976 National Board of Review dubbed it one of the year's 10 Best Films.
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Columbia Tristar Home Video's DVD delivers The Front in both full-frame and its original 1.85:1 (anamorphic). The "film-like" print is clean and well defined, and the transfer is flawless. Its Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural audio is perfectly strong and clear. Missing numerous opportunities for topical supporting supplements, instead the disc gives us previews for Manhattan Murder Mystery and Lost in Yonkers. Keep-case.