The Hollywood blacklist during the post-war era after World War II is one of the darkest periods in the history of the entertainment business. Although there was never an official written blacklist, the movie studios were under constant pressure by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to refuse to employ actors, directors, producers, and writers who were suspected of being Communist sympathizers. The Front, a drama with elements of comedy which was directed by Martin Ritt (himself of victim of the blacklist), exposes the public humiliation and private anguish which came with being blacklisted. The Front has now been released on Blu-ray by Twilight Time with a top-notch transfer courtesy of Sony.
Distributed By: Twilight Time
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: English 1.0 DTS-HDMA (Mono)
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 1 Hr. 35 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-rayStandard Blu-ray Keep Case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 02/11/2014
The Front opens with iconic black & white images from post-World War II America, accompanied by the sound of Frank Sinatra singing "Young at Heart." We see newsreel footage of Senator Joe McCarthy's wedding; the war in Korea; a family filing into its fallout shelter during an air raid drill; a ticker-tape parade in New York City for General Douglas MacArthur; President Harry Truman; Joe DiMaggio’s uniform number being retired at Yankee Stadium; Marilyn Monroe at Coney Island; boxer Rocky Marciano flexing his muscles; women displaying the latest fashions; Dwight D. Eisenhower at what appears to be his inaugural ball; Julius and Ethel Rosenberg being transferred from court to jail; and wounded soldiers in wheelchairs.
The Production Rating: 4.5/5
When the action gets underway we are introduced to Howard Prince (Woody Allen), who is working as a cashier at a restaurant/bar in New York City. Howard also is, on the side, a small-time bookie who tends to lose more than he wins. While at work he is greeted by an old friend, Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy), a writer for television who has a problem - he is no longer getting work because he has been identified - accurately - as a Communist sympathizer. No one will buy his scripts, so he asks Howard to front for him. Alfred proposes that he will submit his scripts to producers, but Howard will be listed as the author. This will enable Alfred to continue making a living and Howard will be paid 10% for his trouble. Howard immediately and willingly accepts. He and Alfred have been lifelong friends, and how difficult can it be to pretend to be a writer?
The first script is offered to a television show called "Grand Central." Producer Phil Sussman (Herschel Bernardi) and his assistant Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci) love the script, and they immediately prevail upon Howard to come to the television studio to meet them and the show's star, Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel). This is the era of live drama on television, and Sussman has been driven to despair as his stable of writers has been thinned out due to the blacklist. Howard, of course, is a complete unknown and has never been political, so he seems to fit the bill perfectly. Howard also is immediately attracted to Florence, who is impressed by his talent and is thrilled to be working with a previously unknown writer.
Howard, who originally balked at taking any money from Alfred, now finds himself suddenly prosperous with steady income rolling in. He ever persuades Alfred to introduce him to other blacklisted writers who need a front. Before long Howard is moving into a new apartment, is being invited to swanky parties, and is being interviewed on television. The network is pleased by Howard's output but worried because so little is known about him. The head of the network asks Francis X. Hennessy (Remak Ramsey) of something called Freedom Information Service to investigate. At the time of the call the smarmy Hennessy is meeting with Hecky Brown, who is under suspicion because he had once signed petitions for Loyalist Spain and Russian war relief. Regarding Russia Hecky counters, "We were on the same side, weren't we?" Hennessy tells Hecky that he can help him if he will write a letter confessing that he was duped - but he also wants Hecky to name names. Who did he march with in the May Day parade? Who asked him to sign the petitions? The only way to get Hennessy off of his back is for Hecky to implicate others.
Although The Front is essentially a serious drama about an important subject, there are some funny moments. Howard, who is a more confident man than the usual nebbish played by Woody Allen, tells Florence, "In my family, the biggest sin was to buy retail." In a madcap scene Howard is told that he has to do an immediate rewrite of one of his scripts at the television studio (something which he is utterly incapable of doing) because the show is to air that evening and the sponsor has objected to a key part of the story. There also are some amusing comic moments at a hotel in the Catskills, where Howard has driven Hecky to a stand-up gig which he has landed after his television work has dried up.
Allen turns is a very strong performance as Howard, particularly in the latter stages of the film when he has to decide whether to take a principled stand and possibly lose his newly found fame and fortune (not to mention the affections of Florence). The most impressive acting performance, however, is by Zero Mostel as Hecky. Mostel, who was one of the actors who were blacklisted in the fifties, is to a considerable extent playing himself (although his character is based in part on the tragic events in the life of actor Philip Loeb), and he does it with passion. Indeed, The Front is largely the work of blacklist victims, from screenwriter Walter Bernstein to director-producer Martin Ritt to Zero Mostel to Herschel Bernardi and others. In the opening scene the part of Margo, the waitress at the restaurant where Howard works, is played by John Garfield's daughter, Julie. Garfield was never a Communist, but he was blacklisted for refusing to name names. The Front also boasts a fine performance by Andrea Marcovicci (in her feature film debut) as the smart and appealing Florence.
The Front is an important film because it is a reminder of the terrible things which can happen when our rights to free speech and free assembly are threatened. The Hollywood blacklist is a sad chapter in our history which must never be forgotten. It brings to mind the story about the screenplay of The Bridge on the River Kwai, which was credited to novelist Pierre Boulle. Boulle did write the novel, but he did not speak English. The screenplay was actually written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, who were blacklisted at the time, and apparently nobody caught on.
The 1080p 1.85:1 image utilizes the AVC codec and is very pleasing. The overall picture is slightly on the soft side, but that appears to be deliberate and it is appropriate for the era which is being portrayed. Colors and flesh tones are accurate and the transfer is free of any traces of dirt and damage. Black levels are solid and shadow detail is very good. Exteriors (and many of the interiors) were shot on location in New York City by cinematographer Michael Chapman, and the Blu-ray does a fine job of showing off his excellent work.
Video Rating: 4/5 3D Rating: NA
The English 1.0 DTS-HD MA audio is hardly spectacular, but it faithfully recreates the way the mono soundtrack was heard in theaters in 1976. Dialogue is clear and understandable throughout, and Dave Grusin's jazz-infused score plays nicely without a hint of distortion. English SDH subtitles are available for those who need them.
Audio Rating: 3.5/5
The extras on this Twilight Time Blu-ray include a fascinating and amusing audio commentary by actress Andrea Marcovicci, accompanied by Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman.
Special Features Rating: 3/5
There is an isolated score track by Dave Grusin which includes some sound effects. There also is some vintage background music in some of the scenes which is better appreciated when you listen to it without dialogue. I was a bit surprised to discover that Sinatra's singing, which also plays over the final scene and part of the closing credits, is not included in the isolated score. Music rights issues may be a factor there.
The only other extra on the disc is the original theatrical trailer, which is in excellent shape.
An eight-page illustrated booklet contains stills from the film and an informative and insightful essay by the always excellent Julie Kirgo.
The Front is a very worthwhile film, both as a look back at a bleak period in our history and as a showcase for some remarkable acting, writing, and directorial talent by people who were victimized by the witch hunt known as the Hollywood blacklist. This Blu-ray release is a limited edition of 3,000 units, so readers who are interested in purchasing it should go to the Screen Archives website and verify that copies are still available.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewed By: Richard Gallagher
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