The Front, starring Woody Allen and Zero Mostel, directed by Martin Ritt, 1976
The various blanket infringements on the rights of ordinary American citizens and others since the criminal actions by Islamic fundamentalists of 9/11 hardly represent the first time that the American government has seen fit to curtail those rights. The Palmer Raids roundup of reds, radicals and foreigners in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution at the tail end of World War I comes to mind. As done the subject of this film, the 'red scare' against communist and other labor radicals after World War II with the onset of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, a former ally. The name of this period narrowly is given in the history books as the McCarthy witch-hunt era, although that hardly dose justice to the widespread political paranoia, high and low, in America at that time. The signature event was the execution of the Rosenbergs, Julius and Ethel, for passing 'atomic secrets' to the Soviet Union. As this film points out as it unfolds that political perfect storm dragged in and ruined many people from many fields, probably none more publicized than in the entertainment industry, especially film and the emerging television medium.
Woody Allen has performed many roles over the year from nerdy romantic lead to nerdy neurotic New York intellectual and social commentator but this is one of the few roles of his where the subject matter is more than just fodder for his sardonic writing or comedic talents. The story line here is rather simple, if the politics are rather more complex. Woody, a bright but underachieving New York bar cashier Howard Prince, as a favor (and to get some much needed cash as well) to his blacklisted lefty childhood television writer friend (played by Michael Murphy) agrees to “front” for him. This means that said friend does the writing and Woody gets the credit, the cash and, off-handedly as is the case with many commercial productions, the girl. In short order Woody gets to like the notoriety and the new lifestyle and agrees to front for other blacklisted writers. Then the real trouble starts.
During the early 1950’s it was not enough to write sanitary material for the mass media (approved by outsiders with their own agendas), it was not enough to apologize to various Congressional committees and their cohorts for youthful, innocent and, frankly, acceptable leftist political beliefs in order to survive in the entertainment industry (the subject here but it could have been in the trade unions, educational field, governmental service or almost any other facet of American life at the time). One had to grovel and name names. And the bulk of those who were called before the committees or faced other types of pressure did do, with regret, with relish or with indifference. But they did it.
There is an incredibly poignant sub-theme that runs throughout this film that details the pressures in the career-shattering of one of the “recanters”, Hecky Brown (masterfully played by Zero Mostel, blacklisted in the 1950’s himself as was the director Martin Ritt and some of the others), who in the end gives up Woody to the committees- finks on him, in other words. However filled with remorse Hecky commits suicide. That was not common to be sure. Hell, those were desperate times and not everyone has the courage to say no. Woody’s character, in the convoluted, Allen way does just that. And pays the consequences. So in the end there were choices. For every Elia Kazan, Elizabeth Bentley and the like there was a Howard Fast, a Dashiell Hammett and the like who said no. As some recently released information has indicated the Rosenbergs paid the ultimate price for their refusal to name names. That, in the end is what this film is all about and that is what should be honored. Just say no.