Label: Twilight Time
Released: February 14, 2014
Genre: Comedy / Drama / Satire / Hollywood Blacklist
Synopsis: A cashier accepts an offer to submit TV scripts on behalf of his blacklisted friend during the Hollywood Blacklist era, but greed and ignorance start to undo his cozy arrangements.
Special Features: Isolated Stereo Score Track / Audio Commentary with producer Nick Redman, film historian Julie Kirgo and actress Andrea Marcovicci / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.
It’s incredible to believe the Hollywood Blacklist and HUAC, the anti-Communist committee set up in 1938 to route out Reds in the entertainment industry, remained active past the nasty fifties into the seventies, ultimately folding in 1975 but seeing its mandate shifted over to the House Judiciary Committee.
During its heyday, which extended to the early sixties, HUAC, as led by scumbag Sen. Joseph McCarthy, destroyed the careers of many creative and technical figures, and among the affected talents were director Martin Ritt (The Long, Hot Summer, The Sound and the Fury, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Conrack) and brilliant screenwriter Walter Bernstein (The Wonderful Country, The Magnificent Seven, Paris Blues, Fail-Safe, The Train). Both eventually returned to film work, but the end of HUAC in 1975 provided a prime opportunity for maligned filmmakers to make their own statements on what’s often referred to as a dark period in America’s political history.
Set in 1953, The Front tells the story of schmo cashier Howard Prince (Wood Allen) who becomes a ‘front’ for friend / blacklisted TV writer Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy), and due to an overzealous sense of capitalism, Prince adds another pair of blacklisted writers to his name, boosting his 10% take of any earned pay three-fold.
Prince masquerades as a top TV writer, enjoying the attention, respect, and cozy living of a skilled wordsmith during the heyday of live television, but little by little he not only falls under the radar of the HUAC-sanctioned, anti-Red hunters (enterprising figures hired by TV networks to run background checks on staff and purge potential Reds damaging to sensitive sponsors), but is fingered after an associate, TV star and comedian Hecky Brown (former Blacklistee Zero Mostel, appearing onscreen in his final film) is persecuted by HUAC’s henchmen.
The Front is a cynical, sly assault on HUAC and its ensuing paranoia, but without moments of grandstanding or hectoring, and that’s largely due to the film being constructed as a dark comedy, with Allen’s nebbish persona auguring the tone by adding just the right dose of absurdism and wit in situations which are surreal and become increasingly grave. Allen’s dramatic performance is quite understated and underrated: the proof lies in several revealing closing scenes as Prince struggles with the moral issues and catch-22 situations he faces when he’s called to ‘name names’ in front of an itinerant committee.
Mostel’s Hecky Brown is the film’s central tragic figure, but he doesn’t dominate the drama; Bernstein’s script is balanced in giving time to a multitude of smaller characters – the TV station manager, series producer, Prince’s headstrong girlfriend Florence (Andrea Marcovicci in her feature film debut) – and Allen undoubtedly worked in more than a few small bits of his own characteristic business to lighten scenes and heighten the absurdity of political persecution as led by egotists and their warped sense of free enterprise.
Ritt’s direction is first-rate, and the film is cast with other Blacklisted figures and superb character actors. Perhaps the biggest scene-stealer is Norman Rose as Prince’s lawyer, a stage and radio actor gifted with an extraordinary voice. Allen used Rose’s voice in Love and Death (1975) and Radio Days (1987), but the actor’s mellifluous baritone is also recognizable from commercial work, including trailers. (Radley Metzger used Rose’s voice heavily in the trailer for The Lickerish Quartet.)
Dave Grusin’s score – isolated on a separate stereo track – is very discrete and doesn’t really come into play until the final third, adding affecting commentary to Hecky Brown’s final scenes without overstating the innate tragedy. Michael Chapman’s cinematography is very lovely, evoking the period while bathing scenes in a very naturalistic lighting design. Equally strong are the film’s editing, costumes, and striking sets.
The Front was previously released as a bare bones DVD by Sony, and Twilight Time’s filled the void by not only releasing this gorgeous Blu-ray transfer, but adding the aforementioned isolated score track and a great commentary with producer Nick Redman, film historian Julie Kirgo (whose father attempted to reconcile uncredited Blacklisted writers with their film work during his tenure at the WGA), and actress Marcovicci. The trio discuss the era, the Blacklist, composite characters representative of real historical figures, and the film’s deserved stance as one of the first real commentaries on the anti-Communist witch hunts that affected Hollywood and New York’s talent pool for more than a decade. Kirgo’s contributions are a highlight (her recollection of passing a giant “Better Dead Than Red” poster in school is quite eerie) and her liner notes further contextualize the film.
Although the cover art is a great example of minimal yet effective commercial graphic design, the original theatrical trailer makes it clear Columbia had no idea how to sell the film; it’s a terrible marketing campaign that shows the studio’s discomfort in simply not knowing how to handle a darkly comedic political commentary in the wake of HUAC’s closing. Perhaps the studio felt, rightly or wrongly, the general public was still reluctant to revisit a dark period in American history, hence the weirdly didactic intro text and clip montage emphasizing a kind of mistaken identity with wacky hijinks in motion.
Woody Allen films released by Twilight Time include Love and Death (1975), Interiors (1978), Stardust Memories (1980), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Radio Days(1987), and Crimes and Misdemeanors(1989), and the Allen starring in the Red Menace satire The Front (1976).
© 2014 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review