The Blacklist is skewered in this heartfelt comedy that turns tragedy
Director: Martin Ritt
Cast: Woody Allen (Howard Prince), Zero Mostel (Hecky Brown), Herschel Bernardi (Phil Sussman), Michael Murphy (Alfred Miller), Andrea Marcovicci (Florence Barrett), Remak Ramsey (Francis X Hennessey), Lloyd Gough (Herbert Delaney), David Marguiles (William Phelps), Danny Aiello (Danny LaGattuta), Josef Summer (Committee chairman)
The first Hollywood drama about the “the Blacklist”, the shamefully unconstitutional banning of left-leaning Hollywood figures from working as a result of the House of Un-American Activities Committee’s investigation into alleged communist subversion. If there was any doubt how personal the film was to its makers, the credits scroll with the Blacklisting dates of many of its makers including Ritt, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, Mostel, Bernardi, Gough and Delaney. The Front is a tragedy told with a wry comic grin. Perhaps the makers knew that if they didn’t laugh they’d cry.
When screenwriter Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) is blacklisted he asks an old friend, small-time bookie and cashier Howard Prince (Woody Allen) to attach his name to Miller’s scripts and submit them. In return Prince will keep 10% of all payments. The scheme is so successful Prince becomes “the Front” for two other writers and the quality and volume of Howard’s ‘output’ wins him a lucrative job as lead writer on a successful TV show, while his ‘genius’ wins the love of idealistic script editor Florence (Andrea Marcovicci). But, as the Blacklist takes hold – driving out of work actors with tenuous links to Communism like the show’s star Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel) – will Howard take any sort of moral stand about what’s happening in America?
The Front took a bit of flak at the time for not being more overtly angry about the Blacklist – as if the only response possible was spittle-flecked fury. However, today, its mix of comedy and real, visceral tragedy looks like the perfect response. The Front embraces the Kafkaesque ridiculousness the Blacklist created. Howard locked in an office at his studio to do an emergency re-write, calling Miller who taxies round replacement pages. Howard’s general ignorance of writing in general and his desperate mugging up on Eugene O’Neill and Dostoyevsky to pass them off as ‘influences’. The fact the list hasn’t done anything to stop these writers’ work from getting out there.
It’s also strong on the sense of underground community that grew among the banished writers. As veterans themselves, Ritt and Bernstein could be nostalgic about the sense of ‘all being in it together’ that the unemployed scribblers had.That vibe comes across well form Miller, Delaney and Phelps meeting in restaurants, libraries and hospital rooms to knock ideas around. There is the espionage-tinged excitement of watching script pages being palmed across to Howard like dead-drops. The film never forgets the gut-wrenching difficulty, stress and pain of not being able to work openly. But it also remembers the family feeling of a support network, giving people the courage to keep going.
But then the Kafkaesque comedy slowly drains away, as the punishing injustice creeps to the fore. Studio fixer – and vetting officer – Hennessy (played with self-satisfied relish by Remak Ramsey) calmly pressures creatives to turn on each other. Sure, there is comedy in him telling a victim of mistaken identity that there is nothing he can do to help him as the guy has nothing to confess to – that’s Kafka – but Ritt doesn’t miss the desperation and fear in the victim’s eyes. To Hennessy everyone is guilty, innocence is something that needs to be proved – and it’s a lot less funny when he strips people of their livelihoods because their personal views don’t fit.
The film’s true tragedy is actor Hecky Brown. Beautifully played by Zero Mostel, in a performance of a jovial front placed over ever-growing bitterness, anger, self-loathing and despair, Hecky can’t work quietly behind a front. As an actor, once he’s under suspicion, he’s unemployable. Despite his jokey pleas that he only marched on May Day and subscribed to the Socialist Worker (six years ago, when as he points out the USSR were our allies) to impress a girl, he’s goes from star to begging for work at the Catskills. There the manager is all smiles and pays him $250 for a gig worth thousands (based on a real life incident that happened to Mostel – and the pain and anger of it is still in his eyes).
Mostel’s performance is the heart-and-soul of the film which follows his increasingly bleak tip into despair. He scuffles with that Catskills manager over his hypocritical sorrow. Staying in Howard’s apartment, he despises himself as he searches through Howard’s desk for incriminating evidence. In a striking scene, he berates “Henry Brownstein” (Hecky’s real name) for stopping him turning state’s evidence. It’s a sad, moving picture of the real human cost of this injustice that helps moves the film past comedy and into dark drama.
And to get an even better of how serious this human cost, what could be better than placing a self-interested, politically disengaged chancer at its heart and seeing how he responds. The casting of Woody Allen – in one of the few films he appeared in and didn’t write – is perfect. There is no-one more politically disengaged and full of pinickity obsession that Allen. Howard Prince is a decent guy but his main interests are money (his eyes light up at earning 10% for nothing), his fancy apartment, seducing Florence and the adulation from fawning producers.
What better way to show the impact of the Blacklist injustice, than to see how Howard slowly shifts from a man so disinterested he doesn’t even know what the Fifth Amendment is, to someone who feels compelled to make a stand. Slowly he finds he can’t ignore the injustice – there is a beautiful moment when Howard embarrassedly drinks and stares at a poster on the office wall at the back of the frame while Hecky begs for $500 from that Catskill’s manager. He gradually realises a fun ride for him is a dystopian nightmare for others – his self-satisfied shrugs turning into real principle.
Because, he will learn, HUAC doesn’t care for names – they care about breaking people. Being as ignorant and disinterested in politics as Howard won’t save you. That’s what Ritt and Bernstein have been driving to: this wasn’t Kafka, it was Orwell, it wasn’t about the obstructive indifference of bureaucracy but Big Brother’s ruthless rooting out of thought crime. So, when Allen tells them – in the final lines of the film – to go fuck themselves, and the film freezes so he can walk out of it, you really understand why this is a glorious cry of wish fulfilment straight from the heart of the film-makers.