Front, The (Blu-ray Review)31 Mar, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Woody Allen, Andrea Marcovicci, Herschel Bernardi, Michael Murphy.
Any movie that begins with Sinatra-backed newsreel footage of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s wedding is likely to have a sense of humor, and there’s surprising humor to be had in this very grown-up look-back at the early 1950s Hollywood and TV Blacklist — written, directed and, in some key case, acted by real-life survivors of the scourge. Of course, with Woody Allen as the lead, one wouldn’t ordinarily be surprised by the humor here, but Allen was surprise casting here, and (per Julie Kirgo’s keen Twilight Time liner notes) a late addition to the cast who worked out extraordinarily well.
The writer-director team here was Walter Bernstein and Martin Ritt, who had previously made a very expensive commercial flop about dirt-poor coal miners (The Molly Maguires) that nonetheless had its acting and James Wong Howe photographic moments. The two apparently had to give this later endeavor some funny bits or forego the opportunity to get it bankrolled, but the chuckles don’t detract, and this is essentially one serious movie. It’s about individuals who “fronted” and took credit for the scripts of blacklisted others, such as Dalton Trumbo — whose work on 1956’s The Brave One caused the Oscars an embarrassing moment when the non-existent “Robert Rich” (i.e. Trumbo) won the Academy Award for best story. In other cases, as the one in this story, living, breathing fronts did exist — though Bernstein and Ritt are dealing with TV, not features, in a movie that would make a great living room double bill with George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck, which deals with Edward R. Murrow’s take-on of McCarthy in 1954, when the latter was already on the Concorde to Cirrhosisville.
In this 1976 rendering, Robert Altman regular Michael Murphy plays a Communist sympathizer who turns to old school buddy Allen, an underachieving cashier and sometimes bookmaker who sponges off an older garment district brother whose money he always needs. Murphy’s work on a network anthology series is now drying up due to his political associations, and one of the things I like about the movie is that some of those persecuted make no bones about their leanings (which in the case of some real-life many were legal when they acted on them by naively signing Lefty petitions). This isn’t a movie about McCarthy (a senator) but House of Representative and even lower-rung hacks who determined the actors and writers who got employed in this sorry period. One subplot involves a Red-sniffing grocer (no chain, just a few stores) who makes the network quake over hiring practices when he isn’t say, pushing gizzards — a character, I believe, who had a real-life antecedent. In this case, one exec played by Herschel Bernardi and his superiors employ a slick and slimy go-between who can help restore employment for accused transgressors if they’ll just cooperate, which means naming names.
What makes parts of the movie funny is the barely literate Allen character’s expanding illusions of grandeur. He begins to like Murphy’s kickback money (10% of the script sale) and presses to front an entire stable of writers — eventually rejecting certain writing submissions as not being “up to” his standards. Complicating matters is his growing mutual attraction to a show producer (Andrea Marcovicci), whom he senses probably won’t be as forthcoming in her affections if she knows that his real self spends his days taking 8-5 bets on some coming Carmen Basilio boxing match. There’s also Allen’s growing affection of another source for the anthology show’s taxi-driver host, Hecky Brown — played by once blacklisted Zero Mostel in a super big bear of a performance that might have gotten him a deserved supporting actor nomination had The Front been a commercial hit. One of the greatest big-screen crimes ever perpetrated was the failure to cast Mostel in the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof, but at least he got this movie, The Producers and Panic in the Streets on his resumé in a limited film career — also Richard Lester’s jittery take on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, though that one (while still funny) messed up the play.
The Front is no Second Coming, but a good solid movie that lacks the electricity of Ritt’s Hud and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, to name a high-profile couple that had more spectacular photography (though Michael Chapman is the no-slouch lens-man here, thank you). I always thought this movie’s ad campaign disingenuous — one that claimed the era’s “finest,” “best” and “funniest” actors, writers and comedians weren’t allowed to act, write and make us laugh under what, indeed, was a horrific and basically childish political period. Gary Arnold of the Washington Post did a good article at the time refuting this assertion: Just on the directorial level alone, Hitchcock, Minnelli, Ford, Zinnemann, Sirk, Nick Ray and so on were doing some of their best career work during the same time span. But there’s no doubt that a great artistic period could have even been greater had grocers and House members representing outhouse states not been calling the shots on what we were all allowed to see.