Then 1994. Winter. Another Friday night at university, another film from Leeds Metropolitan University’s collection.
Now A forgotten film in some ways (it doesn’t even feature in the index of Woody Allen on Woody Allen), The Front should stand alongside the eco-system of 70s films, spoken in the same breath as All The President’s Men and The French Connection. That it's not could be attributed the subject matter which must still have been quite raw even a couple of decades later – the blacklisting of writers during the Communist witch hunt of the 50s. Allen plays a gambling debt-laden bar cashier who agrees, for 10% of the profits, to be the front for a group of television writers who’ve been placed on McCarthy’s list and though his motives are initially noble circumstances push him into taking a stand.
Based on the real experiences of writer Walter Bernstein and director Martin Ritt, The Front offers us Allen’s first dramatic pure acting role. In The Woody Allen Companion, Stephen Spignesi suggests that its his first “non-Woody role” and to an extent that is true – this isn’t the madcap figure blundering about in the future or Napoleonic Russia. But the tone of his performance isn’t too far away from his work as Play It Again, Sam’s Allan Felix -- it’s simply that with the exception of a couple of notable one-liners, conversations aren’t gag laden and indeed watching the film in the midst of these comedies there are moments when the ear is attuned waiting for the witty retort but a banality is deliberately offered instead.
In his original review of the film, Roger Ebert notes that in the build up to the film’s release a level of expectation grew of the kind that no film would be able to live up to which in his eyes it doesn’t. Ebert then suggests that the failure of the film in his eyes can be attributed to having this figure at the centre of the film is a blunder, because however much it might be pushing towards the “larger statement” it’s undercut by the fallacy that these television executives and script editors are unable identify as fake someone who clearly doesn’t have the ability to write a laundry list. He suggests: “The movie becomes a suspenseful game: If Woody gets unmasked, will he lose the girl and have to slice pastrami again? The moral issues involved become an inconvenience; blacklisting is the backdrop for a situation comedy.”
I think that’s a rather harsh criticism. As George Clooney’s later film on the same theme, Good Night and Good Luck demonstrated, Mccarthyism is a rather dour, tragic subject. That film accomplished its aims of bringing that period of history in the “entertainment” industry to book through great speeches and stylisation. The Front’s approach is more akin to fantasy; yes, Woody’s acclaim is a fantasy but I think there’s enough of a hint to suggest that both the producer and his girlfriend the script editor are in denial – how else would the accept the rapidity with which he appears to submitting scripts and the variations in style? But I also think, the heavy dramatic and thematic lifting is being done by the Hecky Green character played by Zero Mostell, whose stunning performance demonstrates the crushing effects the blacklist had on performers who happened to mix with the wrong people at the wrong time causing the destruction of their life and reputation.
What is notable is that even though Woody’s apparently simply an actor here, it’s his first film which is set completely in New York, that breathes the city. Danny Aiello even plays a greengrocer. From his character Howard Prince’s initial mildewed apartment to the street sellers and book keeper to the cafés and restaurants were he takes his meetings through to the upmarket dinner parties and the television studios and out to the Catskills, The Front spans the Big Apple taking a wide look at the complexity of its landscape and citizens in ways that even his more icon films can’t and a year before Annie Hall.
Forget Love & Death, a case could be made for this being the transitional film and perhaps it was as he found himself shooting on the streets of his home town that he felt ready to make as he says in the Bjorkman interview “some deeper film and not be as funny in the same way. And maybe there will be other values that will emerge, that will be interesting or nourishing for the audience.” Certainly the production team is filled out with what were already Woody’s stalwarts, who would go on to produce Annie Hall and onward -- Robert Greenhut, Charles H. Joffe, Martin Ritt and Jack Rollins.
Posted on Thursday, February 25, 2010