Furthermore, this was pre-Annie Hall and Allen had yet to be truly recognized as more than a purely comic persona. Ostensibly a comedy, The Front offered Allen the chance to show off a more dramatic side in a film that possessed equal parts pathos and humor.
Set in 1953 during the peak period of the Hollywood blacklist, the film boasts participation from many real-life blacklistees, including screenwriter Walter Bernstein and director Martin Ritt. The set up is simple. Bar clerk Howard Prince (Allen) is approached by his blacklisted TV-writer friend, Alfred Miller (Michael Miller). Alfred needs someone to act as a “front,” posing as a writer in order to get his scripts produced. McCarthyism and the Red Scare of the ’50s resulted in the destruction of many Hollywood careers when artists suspected of being (or named as) communist sympathizers were shunned. But Howard isn’t particularly interested in their plight, at least not at first.
Howard need only walk the walk and talk the talk, all while claiming Alfred’s work as his own. He’ll be paid an agent’s fee of ten percent. A bit of a degenerate gambler, Howard seizes the opportunity to make some easy money. The scheme works so well, other blacklisted writers employ Howard’s services. Before long, he has a whole stable of clients offering him top-drawer work in a variety of genres, much to the amazement and delight of the producers to whom he’s delivering scripts. Howard, perhaps understandably, allows some of the accolades to go to his head.
As one might imagine, the premise allows Allen to flex his comedic muscles as Howard struggles to play the part of a prolific, talented writer when in reality he’s practically “illiterate” (Howard’s own description). But it’s worth noting that Allen absolutely delivers a distinguished performance here, noticeably different from what he was doing in his own films of the era. He plays Howard as a sleazier, unscrupulous, dirt-bag variation on his Little Tramp-inspired, tragic clown early roles. As The Front progresses, Howard develops a believably sweet romance with his script editor, Florence (Andrea Marcovicci). He also develops a deep sense of sympathy for persecuted actor and stage performer Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel).
Hecky’s saga is one of the most serious aspects of The Front, and Mostel plays the desperation to a tee as Hecky is suspected of un-American activities. As explained in the audio commentary, Columbia originally tried to market the film as a laugh riot that pairs the comic styles of Woody Allen and Zero Mostel. Based not only on the subject matter, but also the way Ritt and Bernstein present it, The Front was far more serious-minded than its marketing campaign suggested. Andrea Marcovicci was recognized with a Golden Globe nomination for her work and Walter Bernstein received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
The Front comes to Blu-ray with a transfer that retains all the grain inherent in a film of this era. Michael Chapman’s cinematography is well preserved, offered as a clean, 1080p presentation framed at 1.85:1. It’s not the most visually interesting film to begin with, but it is certainly hard to imagine it looking any better than it does here. The same goes for the DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono mix, which does a good job offering distortion and hiss-free dialogue and music. Dave Grusin’s score is available as a DTS-HD MA 2.0 isolated track (which also includes some effects).
In addition to the isolated score, there is an audio commentary track featuring members of the Twilight Time team—Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo—joined by cast member Andrea Marcovicci. This is a real treat, combining the historical knowledge of Redman and Kirgo with the on-set experiences of Marcovicci. Now 65, the actress seems to recall the making of The Front as if it happened last year. She shares some great anecdotes involving working with Woody Allen, particularly when comparing his and Zero Mostel’s on-set approach. The commentary is quite valuable in providing historical context for the film, especially useful for anyone not well versed on the Hollywood blacklist.
Definitely worth adding to any comprehensive Woody Allen collection, The Front is available (while supplies last) from Screen Archives. Visit their official website for ordering information.