The age of Hollywood blacklisting and McCarthyism would be a fascinating subject just on its own for any movie, which is why the fact that many people involved in making The Front – namely Walter Bernstein (screenplay), Martin Ritt (director), as well as Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, and Lloyd Gough (actors, all three) – were all actually blacklisted during the era in question makes the movie even more intriguing to watch on a more meta-textual level. The conscious decision to tackle the subject by turning it into a comedy for example is very interesting, telegraphing just hard it must have been handling such a touchy, personal and painful subject. I suppose it could have been very therapeutic to insert more humor into it and thus process their personal experiences in more lighthearted manner.
Casting Woody Allen into the lead was a very clever casting as he is just perfect for the role and has the acting chops to carry the entire picture with his charisma. Allen is able to portray just the right type of slightly nervous, but still comedic hustler who ends up fronting several blacklisted writers by passing on their texts as his own for a sizable commission. It’s nigh impossible to picture anybody else doing as good of a job as Allen. There are several cute moments in the movie where Allen’s comedic mastery is utilized beautifully. One of my personal favorites is when his character, who knows next to nothing about writing and art, starts handing out critique to his blacklisted employers and sending back finished scripts because according to him, they were not up to the usual level of quality for what is expected from his false author persona.
The movie was critized a bit when it was coming out for being too superficial, due to being a comedy and not handling the material in a more subtle, serious and dramatic way. But I don’t really agree with that. Sure, it’s a funny little movie, but it has heart and plenty of moving scenes. In fact, one of the most powerful scenes is when Zero Mostel’s character commits suicide after he’s been forced to spy on other people. The nonchalant and calm way the entire scene leading up to Zero killing himself is perfectly set up and in a very serene, graceful manner gives you some insight to what kind of hopeless fait accompli life was when you had to carry the burden of being blacklisted and couldn’t support your family. It’s beautiful in way, how sad it is.
The Front does not quite manage to become a great piece of cinematic history, but it is very much an interesting and highly amusing motion picture. There’s also a small curiosity trivia factor here that makes it worth seeking out if you’re an Allen fan: this is one of the few movies where Allen stars in the lead role that he himself neither wrote, produced nor directed, as well as one of the earliest instances of that happening.