In 1976, Woody Allen had made it pretty clear he was interested in a change. He was successful but, even as early as 1973, he had started saying in interviews that he was no longer interested in making “those kinds of films” (meaning wacky comedies) anymore.
Of course, he did transition, incredibly successfully and incredibly quickly. By 1978, he was an Oscar-winning director and by the late-eighties he was probably the most acclaimed film-maker in America. But in between, for one forgotten moment, he transitioned in a more conventional and modest way — by taking a lead role in a crowd-pleasing, dramatic movie by an established director.
Comic actors moving into drama is a transition so common in Hollywood, it’s almost incomprehensible to think that a comic movie star wouldn’t, at some point, set their sights on an Oscar and try to catch everyone off-guard with a big, serious drama from an esteemed director. Tom Hanks in Philadelphia is probably the most famous, and successful, example, but Jackie Gleason (The Hustler), Gene Wilder (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), Peter Sellers (Lolita) and Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator), even by 1976, had established a precedent for successful comedians suddenly and unexpectedly veering towards the dramatic.
The Front is a classic example of a showy, awards-baiting dramatic role for a comic actor to prove himself in. The film is about the Communist witch-hunting of the 1950s and the lives ruined by the entertainment industry black-listing that followed. The plot follows a down-on-his-luck Brooklyn cashier (Woody Allen) who “fronts” as a writer for several blacklisted screenwriters in the early days of McCarthyism. Initially he’s just in it as a way of earning a few quick dollars (he gets 10% of their commission), but soon he finds himself forced to confront the damaging effects of hysteric, anti-Communist paranoia. This premise, combined with the fact that it was directed by Oscar-nominee and formerly blacklisted Martin Ritt (Hud, Norma Rae) and written by another former blacklistee (Walter Bernstein) and starring yet another (Zero Mostel), must have made The Front look like a guaranteed award season favorite, or at least guaranteed to be described by critics as “Capra-esque.”
There’s a whole genre of American movies about likable everymen taking on big, evil entities and, against all odds, bringing them to the ground, typically preceding (or sometimes because of) an emotional speech that not only teaches an important lesson to the other characters in the movie, but to the audience as well (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Great Dictator, On the Waterfront, Lawrence of Arabia, Schindler’s List, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, that episode of Saved By The Bell when an evil oil company wants to drill under Bayside High, etc, etc). The individuals are usually looking out for themselves, and get swept up in a cause either by accident or for personal, sometimes selfish, reasons but eventually find themselves faced with an important decision: stand up for good and risk everything, or cut your losses and get out.
The Front pretty much follows the beats of the Message Movie like clockwork, announcing its serious intentions right in the opening credits as clips of Joseph McCarthy and Dwight Eisenhower making speeches and cutting cakes are interspersed with military stock footage, all while “Young at Heart” plays ominously on the soundtrack. For the movie-going public of 1976, The Front made its intentions even clearer with its publicity campaign. Instead of opening the movie at a Hollywood premiere, it was shown at an American Civil Liberties Union benefit. And the film’s tagline — “America’s Most Unlikely Hero” — could just as easily be the tagline of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Erin Brokovich.
The plot looks like standard-issue Capra-Corn, but it never comes alive with the out-sized emotion that define Frank Capra’s crowd-pleasing movies, or even those of his imitators. The McCarthy era was relatively fresh in 1976, and many of the cast and crew had been deeply affected by it, but there’s a strangely lifeless tone to the movie, and a timidity to truly engage with or wholeheartedly address a serious, dark chapter in American history.
The movie begins with Howard Prince (Woody Allen) working as a cashier in a Brooklyn pub. It’s established quickly that he owes money all over town. To his wealthy brother, to his boss, and to a bookie (Danny Aiello). A golden opportunity presents itself when Howard’s Communist-sympathizing, incredibly successful writer friend Alfred (Michael Murphy — Allen’s co-star in Manhattan) reveals he’s been black-listed, and asks Howard to “front” as a writer, and submit his (Alfred’s) scripts as his own. Howard agrees, in exchange for 10% commission on his salary. Soon after, more blacklisted writers show up, seeking to publish scripts under the name Howard Prince.
The emotional core of the movie comes courtesy of Zero Mostel, Tony-winning Broadway actor, star of Mel Brooks’ The Producers and Muppet Show regular. Likable and sympathetic as always, here he plays Herschel “Hecky” Brown, a singer, comedian and star of one of the shows Howard Prince “writes.” In one of his first scenes, he’s in front of a House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) crony, reluctantly confessing to have subscribed to the Daily Worker and marched in a Socialist rally. But only, he insists, to impress a beautiful, idealistic young woman with “a big ass.”
His ass-based defense falls short, however, and he’s black-listed, fired from his television job and forced to watch as his performance gigs dry up. Desperate, he goes back to the HUAC, offering to do anything to get his name off the list. By this point, Howard Prince has become a hot name in television — Hecky is told he can “befriend” (spy on) Howard or say goodbye to his show-business career.
So, he strikes up a friendship with Howard, hoping to get some Red dirt on him. He gets nothing, apart from a burgeoning relationship with a left-leaning television producer. Howard, it turns out, is the one who does the learning — in particular, he learns how the HUAC has torn Hecky apart. Hecky, like Mostel, is a born performer; a larger-than-life figure filled with overflowing emotion and unchained exuberance. Having acting, his passion, taken from him, his life falls to shambles — he loses his shit, as it were. As one character says: “a writer can still write, even if no one is reading, but an actor without an audience is nothing.”
Faced with the choice between ratting on his new friend Howard and never acting again, Hecky takes his own life by jumping out of a hotel room window. It’s at Hecky’s funeral that Howard Prince has his Big Moment, and knows he has to take a stand.
Allen’s performance in The Front is unlike any other he’s given. He’s no stranger to “dramatic” roles, but in all his more serious movies, even if he’s not cracking jokes, there are certain Allenisms we grow used to seeing. The wild hand gestures, the fast-paced delivery, the constant throat-clearing. It’s strange, almost disconcerting, to see him so stripped of his physical calling cards — even more so than the experience of him going scene after scene without telling a single joke.
Soon, the HUAC calls Howard to testify, and thus comes The Choice: does he “name” his friends — the writers he’s been fronting for, his new girlfriend, the late Hecky Brown — or does he stand up in favor of civil liberties, and in opposition to fear-mongering and bullying? Surprise... he takes a stand. In front of the committee, the stage is set for a big speech. We get one, although it is a bit more concise than expected. Here it is, in its entirety:
Fellas... I don’t recognize the right of this committee to ask me these kind of questions. And furthermore, you can all go fuck yourselves.
Refreshingly precise and light-hearted, especially given the build up, but I also felt like it was a bit of a cop-out given the film’s otherwise self-seriousness. Big, important speeches can induce eye-rolls like nothing else, but once you’ve come this far, it would have been nice to see The Front go Full Capra. Martin Ritt, this movie’s director, knows what I’m talking about. Three years later he made Norma Rae, a Message Movie that took no emotional prisoners. When you’re working in this realm, it doesn’t seem like there should be any reason to restrain your crowd-pleasing urges.
Many of the events depicted in the film are based on real life. Actor Phillip Loeb, like Hecky Brown, was blacklisted in the early 1950s and committed suicide in the same way. Wikipedia says the blacklisted writers that Howard fronts for are based on Walter Bernstein (The Front’s screenwriter) and his friends. No doubt these add small touches of authenticity, but they’re outdone by the fact that the rest of the movie contains so many glaring, lazy plot-holes. For example, even in the 1950s, it seems unlikely that Howard Prince, a person who had never written anything in his life, could just mail a script into a studio and have it purchased (for a very high price) and produced right away. It’s also unlikely that someone would become a national celebrity, as Howard does, after only having written three or four scripts for a television series. Furthermore, Howard at one point is fronting for three full-time writers, but no one ever questions his curious prolificness. Three writers who, by the way, meet regularly with Howard in a coffee-shop in Brooklyn, despite the fact that he’s being followed by the HUAC. The world’s worst detective could probably have pieced together what’s going on here in a couple of weeks (although no one ever so much as suspects).
Most of the movie’s heart comes from off-screen details, but what’s actually in the movie is lightweight, flimsy, and mostly routine. Since starting this website, The Front is the first Woody Allen movie that I had not only never seen, but never heard of. Unless you’re a die-hard Allen completionist, looking to see him give a different type of performance, there’s no real reason for you to see it. Competent, indistinct, well-intentioned, unremarkable... The Front earns its status as a forgotten movie.
- Woody Allen didn’t write the script and he clearly wasn’t given much comedic license, so, nothing much in this department.
- This was Zero Mostel’s last film role before his death.
- Despite getting middling reviews, The Front was still nominated for a Best Screenplay Academy Award. Oscars love feel-good movies about big issues. Although, a single screenplay nomination was probably disappointing for a film that was nakedly angling for the main prize.
- Woody Allen clearly seems to have gotten along well with his co-stars. Three actors here (Danny Aiello, Michael Murphy, David Margulies) ended up with significant roles in later Woody Allen movies. Zero Mostel would have been the fourth if he’d lived long enough (Allen’s 2008 film Whatever Works was originally written around this time as a vehicle for Mostel).
- A classic The Simpsons episode is named after this movie. It’s the one where Grandpa Simpson “fronts” as a writer of Bart and Lisa’s Itchy and Scratchy scripts, after George Meyer turns them down for being too young (“Grandpa, we need to know your first name.” “Are you making my tombstone?!” “No, no, we’re just curious...”).
- Even though he didn’t write or direct, The Front was still produced by Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins, who had been behind all of Allen’s movies since What’s New Pussycat.