Hollywood has always been fascinated with itself, so it’s not surprising how many movies address the “blacklisting” of suspected communists in the 1950s (Guilty by Suspicion, Trumbo, and Hail, Caesar! to name only a few). Among the best of these is a 1976 film made by a director (Martin Ritt), screenwriter (Walter Bernstein), and actors (Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough) who were blacklisted themselves: The Front.
The plot: An underachieving, improvident, but essentially decent nobody named Howard Prince (Woody Allen) is approached by an old friend (Michael Murphy) who can no longer sell his scripts because he’s been blacklisted. Howard agrees to front the scripts as if they were his own in exchange for a 10% take. Howard gets cockier as “his” scripts are well received and result in romantic attention from a television producer (Andrea Marcovicci). Seeking more glory and more cash, he recklessly volunteers to take on fronting scripts from even more blacklisted writers. Meanwhile, Prince forms a friendship with Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel), a once big star whose career is declining based on some extremely tenuous connections to communists in the past. As the feds start investigating the increasingly famous Howard Prince, lives, careers, and morals, are imperiled.
The film is simultaneously a comedy and a drama. Most of the comedy comes from Allen, who plays within his usual range and is amusing doing so. The drama comes mainly from Zero Mostel, in a performance with psychic weight. Hecky is not a serious man. He likes to make people laugh. He only flirted with communism to impress a woman he was lusting after. Yet the feds treat his alleged subversiveness with deadly seriousness, resulting in him being ground to pieces bit by humiliating bit.
In a solid supporting cast, I would single Herschel Bernardi out for praise. Bernardi isn’t much-remembered today, but he was a very fine actor who was the best thing about Blake Edwards’ superb television show Peter Gunn (recommended here). He has a lighter role here as the producer of the show for which Prince writes. As a man who wants to stand up for what’s right but can’t quite do it, he’s believable and appealing.
Mixing comedy and serious drama effectively takes directorial skill, and Ritt, a real pro, is up to the task. Walter Bernstein’s polished script is an asset in this regard even though his portrayal of blacklisted writers is unrealistically saintly (though one appreciates the origin of his bias!).
The Front was underappreciated by critics at the time and to a lesser extent that’s still true today. Many felt that unrelentingly grim, hard-hitting drama was the only appropriate tone for stories about the blacklist. But if the people who actually went through it can appreciate the absurdity of it, can find black humor in the mockery of it, perhaps these critics can stop getting their undies in a wad over The Front being entertaining, rather than merely earnest, eat your peas moral instruction.
p.s. Look fast for Danny Aiello as a fruit seller who into gambling on the side, or perhaps the other way around.