The Set of 400: #270 – My Favorite Ghost Writers

Today! Because 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 (1976)

Directed by Martin Ritt

Starring Woody Allen (x3), Zero Mostel (x2), Herschel Bernardi, Michael Murphy (x2), David Margulies, Charles Kimbrough, Andrea Marcovicci, Lloyd Gough, Danny Aiello, Remak Ramsay, Marvin Lichterman, Joshua Shelley

A markedly serious film despite the starring comedians, The Front features Woody Allen in a non-Woody Allen movie, and a drama at that (an extreme rarity), playing a cashier roped in by blacklisted writer friends to submit television scripts on their behalf, to enable them to keep earning, in the McCarthy Communist witch hunt of the early 1950s. And while there are funny bits here and there, the film attempts to explore the subject more or less straight, to devastating effect.

But people have had some tonal problems with the movie over the years – the television programs are largely comedies, and Zero’s Hecky Brown, in attempts to keep making money, does continue to perform live comedy acts. Because of this, some take issue with The Front for not taking the whole matter more seriously, but without this – I propose – you’d end up with Guilty by Suspicion, which is a fine movie in its own way, but a touch too unbearable and infuriating (and equivocating in its message and source facts). The Front works all the better because of the lighter moments – the sad clown is almost always going to be a more impactful character.

Zero!

Made only twenty-odd years after the events of the movie, The Front employs a number of people actually blacklisted by the HUAC – director Martin Ritt, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and actors Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough, Joshua Shelly, and Mostel – all with the date of their blacklist in the film’s credits. Zero agreed to do the film as a tribute to his and Bernstein’s friend Philip Loeb, on whom his character was loosely based, Loeb being a prominent actor of his day, starring on the early TV hit The Goldbergs, based on the radio show of the same name. Loeb was forced out of The Goldbergs in ’52 after his blacklist, and struggled to get work for years –  Bernstein later said of Loeb that he was so depressed and despondent during this time that he never once saw him smile. Loeb committed suicide in 1955.

Loeb, with Groucho and Chico in 1938’s Room Service

Allen and Mostel give tremendous performances, with Woody a genuine surprise in his forceful, dramatic scenes. Woody Allen movies don’t tend to venture into these areas for his characters – he might get into some romantic drama, but rarely anything else too heavy – so it’s kind of remarkable the manner in which he’s able to handle this work. Maybe if Woody acted in more films he didn’t write and direct, we would’ve seen more of this over the years, but I guess he kept busy, writing and directing a movie pretty much every year for the last half century.

Oscar nominated for screenplay, and Zero picking up a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actor (in his last big screen movie), The Front did little else awards-wise – not even a Best Disregard for Governmental Authority, for the top quote in the post?

Michael Murphy (#396 MASH) and Zero Mostel (#280 Rhinoceros) join the Two-Timers club, while Woody adds his name to the Three-Timers, following appearances in his films, #304 Take the Money and Run and #349 Broadway Danny Rose.

Coming tomorrow! You’re on a gravy train with biscuit wheels –

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