The Front

By Brian Koller

Notable as one of the few films starring Woody Allen in which he is uncredited as a director, writer or producer, The Front still has him in familiar territory. Set in New York during the 1950s, Allen plays Howard Prince, a struggling bookmaker and cashier. Howard finds wealth, fame and romance when he begins putting his name on the scripts of blacklisted writers.

The Front manages to be effective as a comedy while delivering social commentary on the evils of blacklisting. The writers have an advantage over other professions, as they can still work using Allen as a front. Allen is very funny in his conversations with the writers, acting more and more like he is running a publishing house and forgetting that only politics separates him from being simply a failed bookie.

A secondary storyline has Allen dating Florence (Andrea Marcovicci), an impassioned script editor. Allen is concerned that she loves him as a 'great writer' instead of whom he really is. Meanwhile, Florence feels that Howard should fight the blacklist, instead of looking the other way. Other than Howard's lust, and Florence's misguided worship of Howard as a writer, there seems to be no romantic spark between them.

Look for Danny Aiello as a street vendor who plays the horses. Michael Murphy would later work with Woody Allen again on Manhattan (1979), Allen's best film. Other notable performances come from the villains; supercilious weasel Hennessey (Remak Ramsay), and Howard's oily attorney (Norman Rose).

I have no clue why Frank Sinatra's "Young at Heart" was chosen as the film's theme, except that it is contemporary with the film's setting. The song sounds great over headphones, however. It serves as the audio over era-defining newsreel footage that opens the film.

The newsreel faces, both familiar and unfamiliar, include baseball hero Joe DiMaggio, his one-time spouse and sex symbol actress Marilyn Monroe, Cold War Presidents Eisenhower and Truman, ill-fated atomic bomb spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Korean War general Douglas MacArthur, and the Great Satan himself, commie witch hunter Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy is shown at his own wedding, friendly and smiling, projecting an image of innocence that belies the self-serving political ambitions that destroyed many lives.

Several members of the cast and crew were once on the blacklist, including director Martin Ritt, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and supporting actors Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Joshua Shelley, and Lloyd Gough.

Zero Mostel has the best supporting role, as the gregarious entertainer who finds his career threatened by the blacklist. Mostel's character knows people, not politics, and is helpless in defending himself against an enemy that he cannot confront or understand.

Mostel is best known for a similarly energetic role in Mel Brooks' The Producers (1968), but although a darker film, The Front is also much better. Mostel picked up a British Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. It would prove to be one of his last film roles, as he died in 1977.

The Front picked up an Oscar nomination for Walter Bernstein's original screenplay. It was named one of the ten best films for the year by the National Board of Review.

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