Thursday Editor’s Pick: The Front (1976) w/ Walter Bernstein

by on May 4, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Thurs May 10 at 7:15 at Jacob Burns Film Center [Program & Tix]

 
A very special evening, as legendary screenwriter Walter Bernstein (Fail-Safe, Semi-Tough) joins Jacob Burns board member and director Jonathan Demme for an onstage conversation following the film, inspired by Bernstein’s own experience on the Hollywood blacklist.
 

Vincent Canby for The New York Times:

Using a conventional comedy form older than Bob Hope’s girdle and an actor whose scope has been defined mostly by the method of his one-liners, Martin Ritt, the director, and Walter Bernstein, the writer, have made a moving, haunted film, “The Front” makes no attempt to examine the ideological debris of those years. It doesn’t deal in ideas but in plights. It dramatizes the experiences of some of the victims of that time when, on charges that never had to be substantiated, successful writers, directors, actors, producers could be blacklisted and thus denied employment in television and motion pictures.
 
The film’s inspiration is the casting of Woody Allen in the pivotal role of Howard Prince, a quintessential Woody Allen rat, an unsuccessful, amateur bookmaker who works in a bar as a cashier and has absolutely nothing on his mind except small schemes doomed to fail. “The Front” looks at the McCarthy period through the eyes of this epically self-absorbed coward, who, as is the way of cowards in such comedies, slips upon his finest hour as if it were a banana peel and slides to unexpected nobility.
 
Even in its comic moments “The Front” works on the conscience. It recreates the awful noise of ignorance that can still be heard.

 

 
Andrew Sarris for The Village Voice:

Takes dead aim at the television blacklisters of the 1950s and shoots loads of buckshot at these baddies. Director Martin Ritt and scenarist Walter Bernstein know whereof they speak when they reenact the era of Joe McCarthy and his minions. Ritt and Bernstein were themselves blacklisted at the time, along with cast members Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Joshua Shelley and Lloyd Gough. Woody Allen, who clearly sympathizes with the sufferings of this period, plays the ‘front’ who peddles scripts by blacklisted writers to the unsuspecting networks…. The Front deserves a great deal of credit for having been done at all.

 

Eric Henderson for Slant:

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.

 

 
Marilyn Ferdinand for Ferdy on Films:

The Front is a tragicomic look at how the blacklist worked and how some people sank and swam in its wake. The film gains all the more energy and poignancy from being told by several blacklisted artists.
 
Writer Bernstein captures the collusion between the entertainment moguls and HUAC in a scene of nauseating obsequiousness. Network head Harry Stone (MacIntyre Dixon) all but gives the committee members blow jobs for their selflessly patriot service to the country, and they gobble it up like greedy lapdogs. The exchange is a good reminder not only to Howard, but also to the audience that such egos demand tribute and obedience and that naming names pays them tribute and builds their appetite for power. When prompted to give up a name, for example, Hecky Brown, who can no longer be hurt by these sharks, Howard realizes that to do so would be to confirm the committee’s verdict on the harmless entertainer and give his employer and government an out for their shameful behavior. His parting words, shocking coming out of the mouth of Woody Allen, are “Fellas… I don’t recognize the right of this committee to ask me these kind of questions. And furthermore, you can all go fuck yourselves.
 
The Front begins and ends with Frank Sinatra singing “Young at Heart,” a hit song in 1953-54, the time period during which the film takes place. The lyrics, “Fairy tales can come true/It can happen to you/If you’re young at heart,” give way to the bitter irony of the second verse “You can go to extremes with impossible schemes/You can laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams/And life gets more exciting with each passing day.” Perhaps in shame for helping to take down Philip Loeb, Columbia Pictures coproduced this film. For blacklisted artists who had been living the fairy tale of the American Dream until their youthful activities brought down the wrath of a paranoid nation, The Front offers them public redemption—and the paycheck many of them were denied during this dark time.

 

 

John Greco has some background at his blog Twenty Four Frames:

Ritt and Bernstein, both of whom were blacklisted in the early fifties, knew each other since those early days of live TV and also worked together on two movies (Paris Blues and The Molly Maguires) prior to “The Front.” The director and writer had been discussing making a film about the blacklist for years but were nervous about a serious drama being too preachy and also finding it hard to get financing. The studios would demand a big name to help protect their investment. Bernstein felt a lighter approach with serious overtones could make the film more acceptable. Dustin Hoffman’s name was mentioned. Then Woody’s name came up. It would be his first straight role. Allen hesitantly agreed to be in the film (In a New York Times article by Guy Flatley, Allen pleaded with Ritt to replace him with Peter Falk), it was a stretch but it wasn’t “Hamlet” either. While Bernstein is given sole credit for the script the film contains lines that seem very Woody like. For example, when Florence discusses her upper class childhood life, she says, “the biggest sin was to raise one’s voice.” Howard responds, “In my family, the biggest sin was to buy retail.” Later when he admits to Florence he is not really a writer, he adds “I can barely write a grocery list.” However, some of the humor is a bit darker, at one point Howard is told to change a holocaust scene in a script because one of the advertisers is a gas company.
 
Woody was uncomfortable throughout the filming. He felt out of his element and he had no control over the making of the film, yet it is the ‘Woody’ persona that helped make the film more appealing to the general movie going audience, and the studio, who would not sit through an overbearing diatribe on the blacklist. Though both Ritt and Bernstein were passionate about wanting to make the film, the results are rather uneven, at times fiery and other times rather passionless and cool toward its subject matter, surprisingly so for this director whose films include “Norma Rae”, The Great White Hope,” and “Sounder.” Part of the reason may be due to some of the other cast members. Andrea Marcovicci is lifeless in a role that required anger, as is Michael Murphy’s dull blacklisted writer. It is actually Allen’s performance, and Zero Mostel’s, that hold the film together. They are the Yin and Yang of the film, polar opposites not only physically but in humor and the audiences they speak too. Woody’s character is one whose only interest is in making money and reaping his new found fame as a writer until he finally transforms into a man who takes a moral stand and responsibility at the end of the film. Howard’s inquisition before the committee reveals the absurdity of the proceedings when in order to avoid jail time he is offered the opportunity to name names even if it is the dead Hecky Brown. Mostel’s Hecky Brown is based partially on his own experience of being blacklisted and the indignities he faced. The Catskill scene of being chiseled down on salary is based on an incident Mostel came face to face with. Bernstein also blended into Hecky Brown the story of actor Philip Loeb whose career tanked after he was blacklisted. The pressure of the blacklist for Loeb, along with being the sole support for his mentally ill son was finally too much. Depressed, he overdosed on sleeping pills in a room at the Hotel Taft in New York. In his book, “Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist,” Walter Bernstein discusses Loeb’s ordeal in detail. Other blacklisted cast members appearing in the film include, Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough and Joshua Shelley.

 

 
Dan Georgakas talks to Bernstein for New Labor Forum:

How much of The Front was actuality and how much was invented?

Most of it was based on actual events. Of course, the character Woody Allen plays is a composite of several people who fronted for us, and the character Zero Mostel plays is a composite drawn on Philip Loeb, John Garfield,and other people I had known. The three writers who meet at the deli were based on me, Abe Polonsky,and Arnold Manoff. We were all blacklisted and worked as a group.
 
One of the writers tells Woody Allen that he really is a communist. I think that was a Hollywood first.

That’s a point I wanted to make. I wasn’t blacklisted for nothing. It wasn’t an accident.
 
How did Woody Allen respond to all this? He was still at an early stage in his career.
Woody really made the picture possible. Marty Ritt and I had always wanted to do a movie about the blacklist. We wanted to do a straight dramatic story, but we couldn’t get anyone interested. In desperation, we decided to try to do it sidewise with a comic approach. We got a studio to put up money for a script.The studio heads liked the script and said they’d be interested in doing it if we got a star. Their idea of a star was some- one like Robert Redford. Well, that wasn’t the kind of character we had done, and then we got the idea of approaching Woody. He wasn’t what they now call bankable, but he already had a certain amount of clout. We sent him the script, and he agreed to do the role. We went to Paris, where he was shooting Love and Death. At that time, he was not particularly interested in acting in someone else’s work, but he wanted to do the film, because he believed in what it was saying. He made it clear he was working as an actor. It was our script and our baby. I went to him for advice a couple of times, but he never interfered. He was great to work with.

 

 

Ferdinand elaborates on the poignancy of the Zero Mostel plot thread:

The plot line involving Hecky Brown (Mostel), the television star who suddenly doesn’t seem right for his hit show, is easily the most affecting. He and Howard become friendly during the short time their paths cross at the television studio, and it’s easy to see why. The flamboyantly funny Hecky isn’t so different from Howard—he’s basically apolitical and in need of money to support his family. His “Communist past” can be put down to trying to get laid and supporting the Soviet Union during World War II when they were allies of the United States. He’s willing to write letters, even spy for HUAC to keep working, but to no avail. He has to bum a ride with Howard to a Catskills resort to perform for many times less than his normal fee; the resort owner (Shelley) is only too happy to take advantage of Hecky’s misfortune by cutting the meager fee even further.
 
Hecky’s humiliation makes life unbearable for him, and one night, he makes a visit to Howard to apologize for his tantrum at the resort, checks into a hotel, and takes delivery on a bottle of champagne from room service. He toasts himself in a mirror, goes into the next room, and moves out of the frame. Moments later, a sheer curtain blows into the frame, and the camera moves to reveal the bottle of champagne sitting on the sill of an open window. The film craft in this scene is superb, with its understated image of Hecky seeing himself only in terms of how he is mirrored back to himself by his adoring audience, and an off-camera suicide that offers a beautiful, diaphanous image of horror waving angelically at the audience. Mostel, a personal friend of Philip Loeb, infuses his performance with all the love he had for the man whom he personifies as Hecky Brown; there wasn’t a dry eye in my house after this scene played.

 

 

Eric Kohn
on the power of the Mostel thread, for Reverse Shot:

Ritt and cinematographer Michael Chapman capture the final act, a lethal plunge from several stories above street level, in an eerily fluid long take that spares the gritty details without undermining its dreaded inevitability.
 
Allen’s panache is restrained enough to carry the 95 minutes, and occasionally even reaches an electrified dramatic range that none of his outings as director and star have reached. But most importantly, his starring role still leaves ample room for Hecky’s tragic downfall. Though technically a minor character (he acts in one of the scripts that Prince fronts), Hecky’s suicide becomes a major element in the crowd-pleasing finale, when Prince chooses to defy the House Un-American Activities Committee after being asked to name his late collegue to avoid being put out of the job.
 
At the time of its release, Gary Arnold criticized this ending in the Washington Post, complaining that the film “…seems to have confused Howard’s essentially furtive gesture, which probably reflects (screenwriter Walter Bernstein’s) desire to tell off the Committee, with the sort of compulsive clowning Zero Mostel demonstrated in 1955. While taking the Fifth, Mostel…would wiggle five fingers.” A reenactment of this scene would still play much better than Howard’s exit lines, even as a shameless grandstand appeal. But with Hecky’s monumental death sequence, Mostel’s quixotic tomfoolery in the face of unemployment was indeed restored to glory. While much of his theatrical energy in The Front is mercilessly chopped up in unflattering close-ups and scenes where various higher-ups berate his vague affiliation with the disparaged political party of yore, the long take leading across Hecky’s hotel room and following him to the window gave the actor proper spatial range to channel his character’s resigned psyche into a few brief moments of ironic girth.
 
During these eerily restrained moments, the character acquiesces to the pressures created by forces beyond his control as the invisible walls of the frame become the restrictive barriers of his frail reality. Hecky’s interaction with his reflection in the mirror represents a dying wish—to perpetually preserve an ethic of optimism, even in the most dour of circumstances. But the reflection is a lie, as Hecky knows too well. His conclusive decision signifies the inherent danger of restricting creative expression. Unable to make amends with his world, Hecky chooses to die locked up in a falsified flight of fancy.

 

 
RittMartin in an AFI interview:

To what extend does “The Front” reflect the blacklist era accurately and to what extent is it dramatized for a mass audience?

Everything in that film happened. I was there in that delicatessen when the front said to one of the writers I know, “This is not up to my usual standards. I’m not going to turn it in.”
 
What about the final scene? Is that based on fact?

It’s based on fact in the sense that several guys totally defied the committee. As a matter of fact, when Woody Allen and I decided to use that line, to tell the committee to go fuck themselves, Columbia said, “You can’t do that. This is a PG film.” Finally, we got an OK on it on the basis that a film had opened prior to ours which has gotten the proper rating because of its high intentions. And when the screening committee that rates films saw “The Front” they decided to go with that.
 
Do you think you could get a movie like that made today?
I doubt it. The atmosphere today in this country makes it even more difficult to do serious films. It is possible to survive making films that basically represent who you are and what you’re about. But it ain’t easy. Of course, nothing easy is really worthwhile.

 

And Ritt cantankerously offers his own “F you” to Kael and Sarris:

Andrw Sarris said in reviewing “The Front,” said I wonder what Mr. Ritt and Mr. Bernstein would do if they were writing a film about the Soviet Union. Period. He did not discuss the film. Pauline Kael said the same thing. She said Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Ritt were duped. Now I venture to say the political knowledge of both people is nil. They have suffered for their politics not one wit. There’s not a political gut between the two of them. I don’t know what they hell they’re talking about. I don’t know who the hell they are on that level to make such statements.

 
So there.

 

  • http://twitter.com/Montage_Matt Matt Langdon

    This is a terrific site, btw. You guys really deliver the goods on so many movies. Keep it up.

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