During the mid-1970s Columbia Pictures made the bold decision to use McCarthyism as the backdrop for a comedy about a fraudulent writer acting on behalf of his blacklisted friend. Mark Fraser ponders the logic behind this somewhat unorthodox approach to a painful chapter in US history.
In the forward of his 1980 book Naming Names, Victor S Navasky likens a 1951 House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) hearing involving US actor Larry Parks to “a surrealistic morality play”.
Parks (1914-1975) – the first person from Tinsel Town to act as an informant for HUAC – was initially pinpointed as a communist sympathiser by the same collection of “friendly witnesses” who had identified the Hollywood 10, the now-famous group of writers and film makers that was scapegoated by the authorities during the late 1940s after its members initially refused to acquiesce to the committee’s witch hunts.*
While Navasky acknowledges the following interrogation sessions, which brought “misery to the lives of hundreds of thousands” and “weakened American culture” (Navasky, 1980), were far more serious than pieces of absurdist theatre, it’s an interesting observation to keep in mind when approaching Martin Ritt’s 1976 pseudo-comedic The Front.
After all, what should be made of a movie that partly pokes fun at one of the darkest episodes in the second half of American 20th Century social and political life – particularly when its leading man is a well-known stand-up comic and comedy actor/writer/director (Woody Allen)?
Could it be that Ritt and The Front’s writer Walter Bernstein – both of whom appeared on HUAC’s lengthy blacklist – were being a bit coy when approaching this topic in such a playful manner? Moreover, didn’t the subject matter, which was still reasonably fresh in the public’s psyche, require a little more bitterness and anger?
Furthermore, by putting the ordeal under a humourous microscope, weren’t they a tad guilty of trivialising the committee’s destructive impact on American society while inadvertently toying with the memories of those who were victims of it?
Maybe – but there is another way to look at this well-intentioned piece of social commentary, and that’s where Navasky’s analysis becomes quite handy.
Set in 1953 during the height of the McCarthy Era – a four year reign of psychological terror instigated by Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) which effectively began in 1950 and ended during the first quarter of 1954 when the Eisenhower Administration decided to put a stop to his “accusation(s) without proof”** – The Front starts off as a reasonably straight-forward situation comedy about a New York bar/restaurant cashier and part time bookie (Howard Prince, played by Allen) who is called upon by his life-long blacklisted television writer friend Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) to, for a 10% cut, submit his scripts to the network and take the credit.
At first the plan works well. TV producer Phil Sussman (Herschel Bernardi), along with his bosses, is not only impressed with the quality of the unknown Prince’s work, but is relieved his new talent doesn’t seem to have any known socialist affiliations.
Meanwhile, the latest “writer” on the block also draws the attention of attractive script editor Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci), who completely falls for the ruse and ditches her unseen stockbroker boyfriend to start a relationship with the allusive front.
Things begin to go wrong, however, when the narrator of the first Miller/Prince submission Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel) is targeted by station witch hunter Francis Hennessey (Remak Ramsay) for his past communist-related activities (which includes marching in a May Day rally with the sole purpose of getting laid). Unable to clear his name, the actor is subsequently pressed to dig up some dirt on the enigmatic writer – a development which leads to a short-lived friendship between the two men.
For his part, Prince oversteps the mark when – spurred on by his new-found success (read money) – he also starts fronting for blacklistees Herbert Delany (Lloyd Gough) and William Phelps (David Margulies), eventually demanding that the writing trio lift its game and come up with something more in line with Eugene O’Neill.
Thus the stage is set for what critic Roger Ebert aptly called “the adventures of a schlemiel in wonderland” as Prince juggles his deceptive literary activities, a romance founded on false pretenses and the looming threat of being called before a HUACesque committee to testify against his friends.
While Ebert maintained the casting of Allen as the reluctant hero of this political melodrama was a “central misunderstanding”, looking back it turned out to be quite a shrewd move given the actor’s Jewish heritage.
Critical to the take-home message of The Front is the notion that falling on one’s sword was ultimately better than being an informer, which the people who testified before HUAC were labelled once they started dropping names to save their skins.
Also important to bear in mind is Navasky’s assertion that informants are complete anathema to a Jew.
In Naming Names, he not only points out the Aramaic word for informer is Akhal Kurtza (which literally translates as “to eat the flesh of someone else”), but notes that the so-called Minean Curse – which was introduced to the 12th benediction of the daily Amidah prayer – says: “And for the informer may there be no hope”.
“Jewish Law as found in the Halakah, the Talmud, and the response of various Jewish rabbis, sees the informer as a threat to the entire community, the potential destroyer of people,” Navasky writes.
So, when one of American cinema’s best known Jews (Allen) – a gambler who spends most of The Front opportunistically weaselling his way through undeserved fame and fortune – finally makes a heroic (albeit futile) stand against the dark forces of McCarthyism by refusing to be an informant, it’s easy to see what Ritt and Bernstein are getting at. In their eyes, even the principles of a well-intentioned liar were honourable when compared to those of HUAC, which ultimately was a destroyer of lives and genuine threat to the community’s social and political fabric.
This kind of logic can also be applied to the casting of Mostel who, as the son of a rabbi and blacklisted artist in real life, refused to tattletale because “if I inform, I can’t be buried on sacred ground”.
Finally, it’s worth noting that HUAC’s focus on the US entertainment industry could be perceived as being anti-Semite given Hollywood was regarded as something of a “Jewish preserve” in which Yiddish-speaking moguls like Sam Goldwyn, Louis B Mayer, William Fox, the Warner Brothers, the Selznicks and Harry Cohn “more or less created the studio system”.
Taking all this into account, The Front ends up being more than just another New York-based Woody Allen comedy which happens to be set against a backdrop of “irrational behaviour as the symptom of a mass emotional aberration” (Schrecker, 1998).
Rather, it remains a deceptively modest broad-brush statement about the exploitation of Cold War paranoia by a decisively anti-Semitic political machine that was hell bent on dividing American society at any cost.
*They were Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Samuel Ornitz, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr, John Howard Lawson and Alvah Bessie. Some of these folks eventually did testify.
**This phrase was used by Encyclopaedia Britannica in its 1971 entry on McCarthy (Volume 14, pp 498).
Victor S Navasky: Naming Names, The Viking Press (New York), 1980, pp XII, 109 and 333
Roger Ebert: review for The Front, Chicago-Sun Times, October 22, 1976
Ellen Schrecker: Many Are the Crimes – McCarthyism in America, Little, Brown and Company (Canada), 1998, pp 155
INDICATOR LIMITED EDITION SPECIAL FEATURES:
Audio commentary by actress Andrea Marcovicci, and film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman
Director of Photography Michael Chapman on The Front
Image gallery: on-set and promotional photography
Original theatrical trailer
New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by professor Gabriel Miller, author of The Films of Martin Ritt: Fanfare for the Common Man
Limited Dual Format Edition of 3,000 copies
UK Blu-ray premiere
Words by Mark Fraser
Top 10 Films reviewed The Front on Blu-ray courtesy of Powerhouse. The Front was released on dual format Blu-ray/DVD March 27, 2017.
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