Director Martin Ritt had long incorporated a social consciousness into his films (expressed particularly through characters disillusioned with governmental ideology), in part perhaps due to his being blacklisted in the early 1950s. It’s only natural, then, that Ritt’s filmography would include a work such as The Front, which explicitly tackles the odious activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee that sniffed out “radical” progressives and left many Hollywood artists in financial ruins or with disgraced reputations. With humor in tow, Ritt, along with screenwriter and fellow blacklistee Walter Bernstein, look back 20 years removed from this witch hunt by nudging the dark material in the ribs and showing just how inherently silly the policy really was. Yet The Front doesn’t treat its subjects with frivolity for the sake of a joke—rather, the film is a small triumph of tone that retains a sense of tragedy while implementing a scathing critique into its very form.
Television writer Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) has been blacklisted and turns to his old cashier friend, Howard Prince (Woody Allen), to use him as a front for his scripts in order to support his family. Naturally, Prince becomes a rising star (and, while fronting for other banned writers, admired for his dexterity in various genres), which sets off the receptors of conniving HUAC underlings. Ritt populates his film with similarly blacklisted actors, chief among them Zero Mostel as hapless TV star Hecky Brown, whose comedic persona gradually seems more desperate due to potential unemployment looming over him. Brown, who had apparently been mingling with the “wrong” people, is The Front’s moral center, indicative of the flaws and contradictions that, in essence, make him a human being. Ritt summarizes the single-mindedness of McCarthyism in general when, in one devastating non-gesture, an F.B.I. agent refuses to glance at a pleading Brown’s picture of his children, therefore stripping him of human agency and turning the comedian into nothing more than a means by which to further a political agenda.
Ritt was an astute visual stylist who barely slipped into ostentation and preferred sinewy tracking shots and to frame his characters within or against cavernous-like buildings as if to emphasize their smallness in relation to the world. For The Front, he subtly played with his usual tropes by undercutting his sense of vast space with tight close-ups and quick takes, articulating the infringement of outside forces on his characters’ carefully calculated plans. And yet, the filmmaker kept these cinematic tricks few and far between, instead using austere camerawork and sets defined by a mix of banal browns and earth tones. The overall effect of The Front’s aesthetic is one of blandness—but purposely so. To contain the spread of communism was but one reason behind McCarthyism, and the fear that Ritt, Bernstein, et al would propagate left-wing ideology through their work was a driving force behind HUAC. The Front’s ultimate punchline is that the style is intentionally flat so as to appear as if it doesn’t have any ideology behind it, giving the film a deceptively radical form.
Bernstein outlines separate forms of naïveté within the story, and suggests that, while these types are derived from different personal stances, they nonetheless mirror the other with a damaging lack of empathy. Prince’s new position as a talented “writer” in the industry becomes increasingly self-indulgent, echoing the mechanical, apathetic bureaucracy of the HUAC members in the film’s late interrogation scene. It’s fitting that Prince reads up on his literature, particularly Huckleberry Finn, as his last redemptive/sacrificial act recalls Huck’s “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” passage from Mark Twain’s masterpiece. Allen, in a largely dramatic performance that plays against his familiar intellectual character, beautifully projects Prince’s internal moral quandary with only the slightest of facial tics; the character’s ultimate revelation is that his self-serving idealism is one and the same with that of the agents who question him. The Front’s ending may be accused of schmaltzy self-congratulation, but doing that would be reductive of the struggles that faced the artists during McCarthyism; that the film’s makers lived it and managed to have a sense of humor about it, the final, cathartic statement by Prince is wholly appropriate.
Twilight Time’s 1080p presentation of The Front benefits from a typically superb transfer that enhances the film’s colors and shrewdly lit scenes, with fine balance of the former throughout. Grain level is, overall, pleasing; it does, however, become a bit distracting in the very few moments that have been graded too brightly. The DTS-HD soundtrack is well-rounded, despite some sharply contrasting levels between transitioning scenes.
Unfortunately, the audio commentary by Andrea Marcovicci, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman is underwhelming, with far too much time spent discussing Marcovicci and her career and little on the film itself and the history behind it. That’s not to say the three speakers aren’t engaging, especially when they sporadically broach the HUAC and reveal on-set anecdotes concerning Woody Allen and Zero Mostel (two greatly contrasting personalities), with Redman seeming to keep things on track when Kirgo and Marcovicci tend to meander off-topic. Also included is an isolated score track, a trailer, and a booklet with an enlightening essay by Kirgo.
The rich and deceptively radical The Front is given a justly rewarding transfer from Twilight Time, proving the film’s deft handling of tone can be even more engrossing.