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Dark Comedy of 'The Front' Illuminates Black Period

October 01, 1992|JON MATSUMOTO

As the comedy-drama "The Front" opens, we see '50s news clips of the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. On the soundtrack we hear Frank Sinatra crooning the breezy ballad "Young at Heart." But in this same montage, director Martin Ritt also presents footage of bomb shelters, Joe McCarthy and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg being led into a police paddy wagon in shackles.

"The Front"--a film about television blacklisting--is a compelling and often darkly humorous reminder that the carefree '50s were far from the happiest of days for those Americans who were either Communists or suspected Communists.

Hollywood artists were under particularly close scrutiny during this time. Many lived in fear that their livelihoods would be suddenly taken away by the witch-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities.

In this 1976 film, Howard Prince (Woody Allen) is hired by blacklisted television writer Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) to "front" for him. Miller writes the scripts; Prince simply poses as the author. For Prince, this arrangement proves a boon.

He's a restaurant cashier and bookie and is constantly in debt. Fronting for the talented writer not only means money untainted by labor, but near-celebrity status for this unapologetic opportunist.

It's hard not to chuckle when we see Prince bluffing his way through a television interview or being feted at his old elementary school as an example of a poor student who made good. Walter Bernstein gets the credit for the Academy Award-nominated "Front" script, but the film's humor seems to be at least partly rooted in Allen's comic genius.

The self-centered Prince (he eventually parlays fronting into a lucrative business) might seem an odd focal point for a film about the wanton abuse of civil rights.

Yet defining the main character as apolitical actually keeps "The Front" from becoming didactic. There are no self-righteous ideologues stumping for justice in this film. Instead, Bernstein and Ritt (both of whom were blacklisted in the '50s) show us how easy--and how common--it is for people to choose moral indifference and self-interest over truth and self-sacrifice.

If you were disappointed by Irwin Winkler's similarly themed but relatively toothless "Guilty by Suspicion," then check out this superb film.

"The Front" (1976), directed by Martin Ritt. 94 minutes. Rated PG.

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