Film: The Front (1976)
Director: Martin Ritt
Starring: Woody Allen, Zero Mostel
Runtime: 96 Mins
Review: Michael Allard
In his most celebrated work, Woody Allen is both an amateur and an actor playing variations on the creative persona that’s still going strong after 50 years onscreen. But in one of the funniest and most incisive films to have Allen in a starring role, he is neither writer nor director. And rather than playing a comic, as he does in Manhattan and Annie Hall, he instead plays a man who must pretend to be a funny.
What makes Martin Ritt’s film stand strong next to Allen’s own directorial output is its willingness to be polemical. Set in 1950s New York, The Front portrays the tragic and comic consequences of blacklisting under McCarthyism. Allen plays a bookie who agrees to sign his name to scripts written by an unemployable screenwriting pal accused of being a communist sympathizer. The hero soon finds himself being hired as a front by more and more blacklisted writers who need to earn a living, and risks getting in major trouble himself.
Blacklisting was a fate suffered by many of The Front’s cast and crew, and with this in mind the film ends the common plotline of the hero who lies about his genius not with an ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’-style resolution that forgives, forgets and ties up any loose ends, but in angry protest against the House Un-American Activities Committee. Even more powerful than this, though, is the sub-plot concerning Zero Mostel’s blacklisted comic actor Hecky Brown, based upon real-life actor Philip Loeb. It’s the ultimate Tears of a Clown tragedy, as Mostel, famous for starring in Mel Brooks’ original The Producers, totally embodies a showman absolutely humiliated by McCarthyism.