There’s a moment very late in The Front where Howard Prince (Woody Allen, in an extraordinary dramatic performance), who’s been fronting for blacklisted writers in 1950s Hollywood by putting his name on their scripts, is testifying to a House of Un-American Activities subcommittee. Having ruffled their feathers by turning their baiting non-questions around with non-incriminating non-answers, one of the committee members asserts, “We are not concerned at this time with anything other than the communist conspiracy in the entertainment world.” When they request Prince to give them “just one name,” even if it happens to be the name of a dead man (you can see the gears turning in Prince’s head: “Why in the world would they even need the name of a dead man if not to make a public example?”), The Front‘s ultimate grasp of the truth of the nature of Hollywood McCarthyism is clear and devastating. The HUAC was nothing less insidious than a tool of the U.S. Government in an attempt to gain control of the rapidly pervasive entertainment industry and keep its messages in firm check, all the while maintaining plausible deniability and, thereby, superficially distancing themselves from Stalinesque state control. Perhaps because the film was written by, directed by, and included actors who were all blacklisted in the ‘50s, The Front takes this contemptible hypocrisy to the mat, and the film teems with a palpable sense of terror and outrage. Though it would be understandable if it resembled more of a writer’s film than an auteur’s, director Martin Ritt manages to add a visual sense of encroachment (his claustrophobia is an inversion of the agoraphobia in Alan J. Pakula’s more celebrated All the President’s Men) that enhances scriptor Walter Bernstein’s layers of irony into a cinematic one-two knock-out. Bernstein smartly suggests how capitalism actually benefited from the oppression of suspected communists, and that the most bloodthirsty of prosecutors were actually capitalists in extremis, but doesn’t dwell on them, giving full attention to the effect of the witch hunt on the world of entertainment. In this respect, Zero Mostel, who plays the genial clown Hecky Brown, represents the era’s many crushed souls. Standing on a stage and belting out a showstopping number, all the while being hounded by a P.I. toady and witnessing his career crumbling around him, Mostel’s panic and heartbreak give tragic resonance to the film.
For whatever reason, Colombia TriStar appear to still be one of the last DVD manufacturers that offer the option between widescreen and pan-and-scan. Although Martin Ritt's framing isn't on the order of an Antonioni or anything, don't let us catch you using the full-frame version. The anamorphic transfer is great. In fact, there's times that it almost looks like a Criterion transfer, because it preserves all the grain and "film-ness" of the print. Colors are a tad washed out, but livable. The sound mix is mono and a tiny bit flat, but Dave Grusin's expressive music cues sound clear and full.
Previews for Manhattan Murder Mystery and Lost in Yonkers are included, for whatever reason.
Forget Bill Murray and Jim Carrey. Zero Mostel's brutally moving performance in The Front shows you what a real "clown who cried" performance is made of.