The Front is a film about the Hollywood blacklist era of the 1950s, during which the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) called actors, directors and writers before Congress and ended their careers with accusations of Communist sympathies. It’s a rare film in which Woody Allen is just acting—and it’s a bit overrated. Allen plays a hustler kind of guy who puts him name on the work of friends who have been blacklisted and so cannot officially work.
It’s set in the world of 1950s television, and the film has a deliberate, flat look that resembles that era’s aesthetic. Alfred Miller, played by Michael Murphy, is the first blacklisted writer to use Allen’s services. At the same time the actor Hecky Brown, played by Zero Mostel, is also put on the blacklist. The film follows Brown, who is a Communist, as HUAC tries to dig up dirt on him and on Allen’s character, who is not.
I don’t find the film particularly good on the topic of the blacklist—Trumbo is a better film about that era, and at times Allen is a bit too comedic. Had it been set in the film world, The Front might have been more successful. Everyone involved, including director Martin Ritt and screenwriter Walter Bernstein, had personal experience of being blacklisted, and this does give the movie an extra potency. The actor Hecky has real-life parallels to Philip Loeb, a real-life actor who was driven to suicide by the blacklist.
It’s a film that certainly has its heart on the right place, but it doesn’t give viewers any real insight into the whole backlisting process, a topic where Trumbo really shines in its ability to dig deeply into a sad but interesting era of US history.
Allens performance is good—he tones down his schtik to some extent—and Mostel also puts in a good turn in his role. Allen has dramatic weight when he wants to, and his delivery of the final line is brilliant. Although Martin Ritt has directed many great films, including his masterpiece Hud, this is a film that I can say I respected more than enjoyed.
Unlike the DVDs for films Woody Allen directs, the disc is actually has some special features. It includes a commentary by Julie Kirgo, Nick Redman and actress Andrea Marcovicc. There is also a short interview with Michael Chapman, the cinematographer, who admits that The Front is right-on politically but flawed as a film, although he’s still proud of his involvement. It also includes the isolated score, an image gallery, the trailer, archival interviews with Woody Allen, Martin Ritt and Walter Bernstein, and a new essay.