Martin Ritt brings the Hollywood blacklist – spanning from approximately 1947 into the late 1950s – to life in this comedy drama starring Woody Allen. Featuring a cast and crew of actual blacklisted (Ritt himself was accused of Communist sympathies in 1952 and had to leave the television industry to work in theater instead), the script has a lot of Woody one-liners, but is definitely Ritt through-and-through. For those cinematically historically minded, this is an absolute gem. Otherwise, it’s a very strong drama.
Though The Front is a far cry in many ways from other Ritt flicks I’ve written about on here – Hombre, The Outrage, Hud, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold – there’s similarity to be found in the male protagonists – in this case Allen’s Howard Prince – and in the style. Sure, it’s easier to say that Richard Burton and Paul Newman’s characters belong in a different category of Ritt leading-men than does Allen, but once you get past the surface-level machismo other similarities arise.
Burton’s and Newman’s lead in most Ritt films is the strong, conflicted, silent type and Howard Prince is an awkward, sometimes-funny, sometimes-immoral charlatan, but both types go through their internal ethical conflicts. Both type start aligned solely with themselves and end up making a sacrifice for others – and for a cause in many cases. Both types come through with honesty to someone they love/admire at the end of their journey, and both decide that spinelessness is frequently equated with selfishness.
SPOILERS in the sequence of shots below.
Zero Mostel (also blacklisted) plays Hecky Brown, a once-in-demand comic whose career is on the downswing thanks to accusations and suspicions of Communist allegiances.
In his hotel room after a pleasant encounter with Howard (on whom Hecky has been enlisted to spy), Hecky enjoys a bottle of champagne. Ritt shoots the following all in one, entirely modest shot. Hecky’s red tie – worn throughout, perhaps indicative of his true leanings – really stands out against the otherwise lavish and pearly white room. Ritt starts in medium shot and pans with Hecky as he moves towards camera and then away:
Hecky walks off-frame and the camera lingers, finding Hecky in the mirror’s reflection. Hecky, seemingly in good spirits, takes a sip of champagne and then walks off again:
The camera again lingers without him and we hear off-screen sounds of the window opening. The curtains blow in the reflection and Ritt pans and dollies towards the now open window, Hecky gone, bottle on the sill:
It’s all quite simple, effective, and really heart-wrenching. Ritt makes the strong decision to not show the act on-screen. It’s also a brilliant way to telegraph some sort of unease without the actor outwardly displaying that unease. Hecky is upbeat in this scene, but by allowing him to constantly leave frame, but allowing these moments of emptiness, Ritt subtly telegraphs a sense of foreboding that is ultimately resolved in the final frame.
Ritt cuts from this image of the open window directly to this shot of Howard watching the funeral from across the street. The camera changes focus and dollies around him:
This is not only perhaps the most serious you’ll ever see Woody Allen in a film, and a fine example of montage editing (here’s who’s “responsible” in some indirect way for Hecky’s death), it’s also a camera move that I’ve seen Ritt use in Hombre and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The solitary man, at first soft in the foreground, before the camera sharpens onto him as he goes through some internal crisis at the high-point of the script.
Ritt’s got some other technique in here worth noting. Here’s Howard Prince’s exit after his inevitable HUAC hearing. Like other films of the time (i.e. Butch Cassidy…) Ritt uses a freeze frame to imply historicity and legend, but he changes it a bit. As the committee stands following Howard’s abrupt insult and departure everyone in the court room freezes…except for Howard, who walks out, seemingly unaffected. Read: Howard has finally become his own man; no longer part of the horrible, witch-hunting past, he’s now granted cinematic freedom that the others aren’t:
Lastly, a small note. I’ve mentioned in this blog before my admiration for the visual joke. Though The Front is filled with plenty of verbal comedy, here’s a great moment that happens towards the end of the film. Howard and his girlfriend Florence (Andrea Marcovicci) kiss-
-and as he raises his hand to her hair we see that he’s in custody.:
It’s funny because it’s unexpected and simply a humorous image (the third wheel of the other hand in the cuffs). It also explains the aftermath of the HUAC scene cleverly.