The Film: 4/5
Howard Prince (Woody Allen) is barely able to scratch out a living as a cashier for a rinky-dink New York City tavern. In a futile quest to rise above his station in life he takes a shot on a stock tip that leaves him deep in debt and forced to borrow money from his more successful brother Myer (Marvin Lichterman). Opportunity unexpectedly arises when Howard’s old school chum Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy), a successful television writer having trouble finding work after being blacklisted during the House of Un-American Activities Committee’s reign of terror in the 1950’s. Miller asks Howard if he would submit his scripts to the network but with Howard’s name on them instead of his in exchange for ten percent of the proceeds. Howard agrees to go along with the ruse and soon finds himself hailed as an exciting new voice in the world of live television.
The scripts with his name attached spawn the successful series “Grand Central”, earning Prince the admiration of network producer Phil Sussman (Herschel Bernardi) and script editor Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci). Florence also begins seeing Howard romantically outside of the workplace, while other blacklisted writers seek him out to be their “front” so they can continue to work and get paid despite having poisonous reputations in the industry for being labeled Communist sympathizers. Howard also befriends Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel), a famous comic actor whose own brief flirtation with Communism lands him in hot water with the HUAC and causes his career to go into the gutter. When the Committee demands that he testify and give up the names of Miller and the other writers he’s been fronting for, Prince decides to make peace with his troublesome conscious and take the valiant stand someone should have done a long time ago.
Woody Allen didn't write or direct The Front, but it marked a turning point in his career where he began to shift from the high-spirited comedies that had established him as one of the most promising filmmakers in Hollywood to making esoteric, European-style arthouse dramas far removed from those earlier acerbic farces. Here we find the venerable Woodman playing a character completely different from any he had played before; Howard Prince at first appears to fit comfortably in Allen's repertoire of wisecracking Everyman schlubs awkwardly in over their heads, but here is a guy whose every other line of dialogue isn't a carefully-crafted witticism or intellectual musing. Allen usually excelled when it came to portraying subtly brilliant but hapless individuals who bury their souls beneath meaningless pursuits at the emotional expense of his closest friends and relatives. With the consummate New Yorker taking no role behind the scenes, The Front would come to be a rarity in Allen's cinematic career. It proved that with the right creative talent in place he was just as capable of being directed well by others as he was himself.
The Front was a very personal project for more than one person involved in its making. Director-producer Martin Ritt (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), screenwriter Walter Bernstein (Fail-Safe), and co-stars Zero Mostel (The Producers), Herschel Bernardi (Irma La Douce), and Lloyd Gough (Sunset Boulevard) had all seen their very livelihoods suffer at the hands of the House of Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950's. The story might have been fictional but every nuance and emotion experienced by its sympathetic characters were purely autobiographical and it would have spiritually dishonest for it to be any other way. It could not have been enough for Bernstein to write a screenplay dramatizing the artistic struggle against Hollywood's black list; Mostel, Bernardi, and Gough all play characters intimately reflective of their own personal battles to stay in show business in spite of HUAC's self-righteous crusade. Mostel has the most tragic arc of The Front's colorful and authentic ensemble, the once-prominent entertainer reduced to a shell of his former self merely because he made the unforseen mistake of wanting to win the affections (and body) of a comely Commie. Bernardi's morally conflicted producer is temporarily swayed by Prince in a later scene to take a belated stand against the wishes of the network and the Committee only because the fraudulent scribe wants to save his own sorry skin from repercussions he doesn't feel are deserved, at least not by himself. The names of The Front's cast of characters operating within the comforting confines of the young and thriving world of television and on its fringes may be different from those of the people whose daily lives became a constant fight for respectability and revenue, but they all share the same pain.
Ritt naturally understands the sensitive material that provides the film's backbone and he treats it with the honesty and integrity it deserves. Each scene never feels extraneous to the narrative and perfectly encapsulates each phase of Howard's helplessly escalating dilemma, captured with claustrophobic intensity by the great cinematographer Michael Chapman of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull fame. Bernstein's dialogue is crisp and witty without being uncomfortably erudite. Allen's performance as Howard Prince is ideal for the story because it demands a person lacking in talent and other exceptional qualities undergo a haunting journey from careful observer to defender of democracy and freedom of expression with conviction, to which he rises to the challenge. The legendary Mostel steals his every scene without breaking a sweat at times as Hecky, bravely serving as his own front on the television stage even as in private he is cowering in fear of reprisal of the Committee if he fails to cooperate. Andrea Marcovicci (The Hand) gets the only female speaking role of any substance as Howard's producer and love interest Florence, but she is given enough screen time to make her transformation from industry player to anti-HUAC warrior convinving. Michael Murphy (Magnolia) makes Alfred's own career problems and his distaste in Howard's growing egomania quite relatable. Charles Kimbrough (Murphy Brown) and Josef Sommer (Silkwood) make late entrances as Committee members interrogating Prince in his most crucial scene and deliver fine work, as does David Margulies (Ghostbusters) as another blacklisted writer Howard fronts for. Look out for a young Danny Aiello (Do the Right Thing) making a brief appearance.
The 1080p high-definition presentation of The Front isn’t a significant improvement over Sony’s 2004 Region 1 DVD, but it has been upgraded noticeably. The film doesn’t demand the highest quality in home video exhibition due to its low-key visual style courtesy of director of photography Chapman so the picture, framed in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, is going to look pretty smooth regardless of the circumstances. Still though, Twilight Time’s remastering efforts deserve some notice for making this the best Ritt’s film has doubtlessly ever looked outside of the theaters. Grain is present but never becomes overpowering. The muted color scheme is sharpened without looking too enhanced, while the fine picture details are a warm improvement. The film was originally released in mono sound and the disc’s English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 soundtrack ably reproduces the experience. The results are admirable, with strong and balanced volumes on every component of the sound mix and the literate dialogue comes through with crystalline clarity. English subtitles are also included.
The earlier Sony DVD featured no extras related to the film. Twilight Time improves on that sorry oversight by including a new informative and wistful audio commentary with co-star Marcovicci moderated by the company’s Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo, the original theatrical trailer in HD, a robust isolated audio track featuring Dave Grusin’s understated music score in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, and liner notes written by Kirgo. Since most of the people involved with the production have long passed away and Allen is notoriously reluctant to take part in supplements I consider this better than we ever could have hoped.
A long overdue cinematic rebuke of the Communist witch hunts that gripped the nation in irrational fear and damaged or destroyed the lives of many gifted artists, The Front is a quietly powerful tragicomic drama that appears more relevant than ever today by presenting one of the sorriest episodes of American history with wry honesty and free of emotional manipulation. Fine performances, sophisticated scripting, and understated direction from the late Martin Ritt make this a definite recommendation.