The Front (1976)

 

 

 

Director:    Martin Ritt

Starring:     Woody Allen (Howard Prince), Zero Mostel (Hecky Brown), Herschel Bernardi (Phil Sussman), Michael Murphy (Alfred Miller), Andrea Marcovicci (Florence Barrett), Remak Ramsay (Hennessey), Marvin Lichterman (Myer Prince), Lloyd Gough (Delaney), David Margulies (Phelps), Joshua Shelley (Sam), Norman Rose (Howard's Attorney), Charles Kimbrough (Committee Counselor), Josef Sommer (Committee Chairman), Danny Aiello (Danny LaGattuta), Georgann Johnson (T. V. Interviewer).

with Woody Allen as the front-man selling works by authors on the black list

 

 

Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.

Footage from newsreels. Right wing extremist Joe McCarthy is getting married. The USA is fighting in the Korean War. People build air raid shelters in case of an atomic bomb explosion. General MacArthur receives a big welcome home after being fired by President Truman for insubordination. Now receiving a parade is Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Joe DiMaggio waves to his fans. Marilyn Monroe waves to her fans from a convertible automobile in a parade. Women are modeling one-piece bathing suits. The boys are being brought home. The Rosenbergs go to to the gas chamber as spies for Russia. Disabled veterans are honored.

Howard Prince is working as a cashier in a bar and restaurant. Alfred Miller comes into the restaurant to speak with Howard. Howard is happy to see his old friend. He says he just recently saw Allie's show on television. Howard introduces Allie to one of the waitresses and says that Allie is a big TV writer and they are old friends.

On the side Howard takes bets for people gambling on sports games. On the way out with Allie, Howard takes a bet from the bar tender. In the big world welterweight championship fight coming up the odds are 8-5 for Cuba's Kid Gavilan to defeat New York's Carmen Basilio. [The fight took place in 1953. Gavilan won by a decision.]

The guys go to a place where people can play chess at a reasonable price. Allie tells Howard that they won't let him work any more. He's been black-listed. They won't buy Allie's scripts. He explains that a blacklist is a list of names that are held by the studios, networks and ad agencies. If your name is on the list, you don't work.

Howard asks what is Allie black-listed for? He's a communist sympathizer. Howard says: "Well, you always were." He also asks who can Allie sue? The problem is: "Nobody admits there's a blacklist."

So Allie explains that he wants Howard be be a "front" for him and his writing. Allie will send the script in under Howard Prince's name. Then Howard will have to go in to meet the people pretending to be the writer. Howard says he can do it. Allie says Howard can have ten percent of whatever the writing brings in.

Howard goes to see his brother Myer at his work place. Myer writes out a check for $400 dollars so Howard can pay off some of his gambling bets. He once again tells Howard to get a decent job where Howard can use his brilliant head.

Howard gets a call from a Florence Barrett. She says she read his script and she really liked it. She sets up an appointment so he can meet the fellows in charge.

Howard comes for the meeting. Producer Phil Sussman and Florence are discussing comedian Hecky Brown's problems with the communist hunters. Phil wants Hecky to speak with the FBI guy saying it's for Hecky's own good. Florence is against it.

Hecky comes over and meets Howard. Hecky is a larger than life character who can be overwhelming for most people until they get to know him.

Florence explains to Howard that his script is a little long. Four and a half minutes has to be cut out of it. Phil tells him that he will need the finished script by tomorrow.

A call is made to a group known as Freedom of Information Service. The secretary passes the call onto the boss Francis X Hennessy. She tells him that on the line is a Mr. Tom Hampton from the network. Mr. Hennessy is paid to check on the backgrounds of people hired by the film and TV networks. The prospective employers pays Hennessy a fee for his service. The man Mr. Hampton wants checked out is Howard Prince.

Hecky Brown is in Hennessy's office. Hennessy asks Hecky what has he done? Hecky says: "Nothing. I'm an actor." Nothing? Hecky confesses that six years ago he marched in the May Day Parade. And he had a subscription to the communist Daily Worker, but it went straight into the waste basket. He says he was only trying to have sex with a communist girl with a big ass. Hennessy now asks why did Hecky sign a petition for Loyalist Spain and the Russian War Relief?

Hennessy recommends that Hecky write a letter to him saying how he was duped by the communists and how he feels about it now. But now comes the hard part. Hennessy says that Hecky has to give him the names of people involved in these political efforts. If Hecky names names then, Hennessy says, he will be seen as a sincere penitent.

The network runs the teleplay written by Howard Prince. At the restaurant the staff and customers give a big applause for Howard.

Howard and Florence are out eating at a restaurant. She tells Howard that she is "involved", with a stockbroker. Howard makes her laugh a lot.

Howard still goes to his brother Myer for money. And again Myer complains about it. He says he doesn't understand how a man earning good money is still borrowing money.

Howard pays a visit to Allie. The poor fellow is having a great deal of pain from his stomach ulcer. Howard tells him that he could take on a couple more blacklisted writers. So Allie sets up a meeting with two more writers. The writers are happy to be fronted, but they worry that they need to protect Howard a little more. Howard tells them not to worry about him: "Just write the script I'll take care of my end."

With three writers, Howard can now start paying off his debts to various people.

Tom Hampton calls Hennessy to ask if he has any new information on Howard Prince? He says yes and admits that there's no evidence that Howard was involved with the communists. He adds: "Of course, no proof that he isn't."

So Hampton now gives Phil the go ahead to keep using Howard. Phil is relieved because there's a shortage of good writers. Now Phil asks about Hecky Brown, who wrote the letter Hennessy suggested. Hampton says the letter was not strong enough. Phil now worries about how is he going to tell Hecky that he's fired.

At lunch time Howard and Florence kiss. She gets up saying she has to get back to the office. He tells her she doesn't have to rush back. She gives him a kiss.

Howard walks past one of his writers, who passes an envelop to him and keeps on walking.

Howard buys a custom-made suit. He gets a very nice apartment in New York City.

The FBI confront one of Howard's writers, Delaney, on the street outside his apartment building. Delaney tells them that he has nothing to say to them and starts walking away from them. He has his script in an envelope to hand to Howard, but he tells Howard to just keep on walking. So Howard just keeps on walking without taking the envelope.

Phil is very agitated. He says the sponsor didn't like the flashbacks to the concentration camp. So Howard has to rewrite part of the teleplay. The sponsor is a gas company and they thought that the gassing in the concentration camp scenes make gas look bad.

Phil says they must have the rewrite right away. He says he's supposed to keep Howard at the studio until the rewrite is completed. Howard protests that he can only write in his own room. They won't take no for an answer. So they stick him in an empty room to write.

Phil and Florence walk by him while he is engaged in a telephone conversation. They just stand there looking at him. Back in his room, he keeps looking out the window. Finally, Allie arrives by cab with a script in an envelope.

Phil tells Hecky that his personality is too strong for the show and they have to let him go. Hecky asks him is this about that letter he wrote to the snoops? Phil denies it, but Hecky knows what's up.

Hecky notices that he is being snubbed by all the television people. So he goes back to talk with Mr. Hennessy. Hecky tells him that even his own agent of some 30 years won't return his telephone calls. He asks Mr. Hennessy to help him. But there's a problem. Hecky won't name names. So he is not cooperating fully.

Hennessy suggests that Hecky get on the inside with Howard Prince. They want to know who his friends are, what he does in his spare time and what are his political beliefs. In short, they want Hecky to be a spy. So the government is using blackmail to force entertainers and writers to incriminate each other.

Florence comes to dinner at Howard's apartment. She says she just quit her job. She can't stand watching people like Hecky Brown being destroyed, crucified. She says she is going to fight it. Howard says he doesn't understand. She says she is going to publish a pamphlet entitled Facts About Blacklists. She says she will do the legwork and Howard will do the writing.

Howard tells her that she's making a big mistake. She says: "I want us to fight them. Not get bought off." Howard says it took him a long time to get here and he likes being here now. He doesn't want to start any trouble. Florence tells him: "A writer looks for trouble."

Howard says she should go back tomorrow and say she's sorry and get her job back. She says she's not sorry. She adds that she does know when she makes a mistake. She walks out of the apartment.

Howard drives Hecky up to the Catskills where there are a lot of Jewish resorts. On the way there he starts prying into Howard's life, trying to get information on him. Hecky tells Howard that in television he used to earn $3,000 dollars a night. But for this job he is only getting $500 dollars.

When they get to the hotel a lot of people gather around Hecky to get his autograph and speak to him.

The owner says that he can only pay $250 dollars, maybe $300. Hecky gets angry and says he pisses on his $300 dollars. The owner says that he drove all the way up here, so he may as well stay and take the $250 dollars. Hecky reminds the owner that he said $300 dollars.

When Hecky gets his money, he realizes it's only $250. He starts shouting at the owner and manhandling him. The staff has to pull Hecky off the owner.

Howard takes Hecky to his apartment to help him wind down. He tries to soothe Hecky's worries, but Hecky says what do you know about it? You're a newcomer. He also tells Howard that talent is no protection against the witch hunters.

Desperate, Hecky tries to find out something incriminating about Howard by going through his personal items. Howard attends a cocktail party with some network bigwigs. He is there when the big boss introduces owner Hubert Jackson of Jackson Supermarkets to Phil. The boss says Mr. Jackson is a bit worried about some of the actors Phi is using for his show. Jackson says: "Well, in my opinion, some of them are pretty pink, Mr. Sussman." He adds that he knows customers and if they think a company is sponsoring red actors, they don't buy their products.

The big boss tells Phil to send a list of the actors he is thinking of using and let Mr. Jackson look it over and give Phil any ideas he has. Phil says: "Absolutely." Howard now starts seeing the insanity of a society run by witch hunters. He asks Phil how many stores does the man own? 3 or 4. Howard can't believe it. This Jackson character only has three stores and he tells a whole network who to hire? Phil says: "Who wants trouble?"

Howard is being tailed by the FBI. The guy is there watching when Howard hands out the money to his writers. The power and influence Howard is starting to have starts going to the man's head. He says he would like to have better writing from the guys -- says their quality is falling off. Howard says he's bee reading Eugene O'Neil and he would like something more along those lines -- something with substance.

Allie can't believe the gall of that Howard fellow. He tells Howard and the other guys, that he's going to kill Howard. He also calls Howard a "rat".

The spy is there when Howard talks to Florence. He says he's been calling her for three weeks and he never gets a return call. He says they just had a little argument, big deal. Florence says they don't believe in the same things. Howard asks her if this means she wants to stay broken up? She says she doesn't want to destroy his career. Howard works on Florence until she agrees they'll go to dinner.

Howard is flabbergasted. A subpoena for him? Yes. He has to appear before the House Un-American Committee. Howard asks Phil to be that one guy who stands up to the Committee and tell them where they can shove it. He doesn't realize the hypocrisy of his own statements when he tells Phil to take a stand.

So Phil calls up Tom saying that Howard doesn't have to appear before the Committee. They can take a stand. When Phil stops his rant, Tom speaks. Phil listens and then hangs up and tells Howard that he has to go before the Committee.

Legal counsel for the network goes over the groundwork with Howard before letting him speak before the committee. He says if Howard follows what he's telling him, Howard will have no trouble at all with the committee. After all, Howard is going to be a friendly witness.

Howard visits Allie in the hospital for an operation on his ulcer. With Allie are Howard's two other writers. They are worried about what Howard is going to say to the Committee. Howard says it's no big deal because he's going to cooperate with the Committee. He goes on to say: "If I don't cooperate, you don't work, nobody works. Is that what you want?" Allie says that the Committee want Howard Prince so they can use him as an example to scare others in the entertainment industry. He adds that Howard just can't cooperate with the Committee. Howard is afraid that he will have to go back to working at the cash register.

Hecky comes over to Howard's place to apologize to him about that night following the Catskills disaster. Hecky stays a little while and then leaves.

Hecky goes to a fancy hotel and gets a room. Room service brings him some champagne on ice. Hecky pours himself some champagne and drinks it down.  Then he cradles the champagne bottle in his arms like a baby. He takes a big swig of champagne. Off camera he opens a window and he's gone. He jumped to his death.

Hecky left behind a wife and two young sons. Howard watches the people coming out of the funeral home from across the street. And the spy is there taking photos of the mourners looking for possible reds.

Howard comes over to see Florence. He tells her that he's been thinking about a lot of things. She gives him a drink and he starts confessing about being a front for blacklisted writers. It was his name, but their scripts. Florence looks crushed. She says he now is like a complete stranger to her. He says she was never interested in him, just the writer he was pretending to be.

Florence sits down on her bed and asks Howard who is Howard Prince? Well, for one thing, he's a guy going before the evil Committee. He tells her she's going to be surprised tomorrow afternoon when he testifies. She tells him not to fool around because the Committee can inflict heavy punishments on him. Howard says that he is going to beat that Committee in his own way.

In a private session with the committee, Howard weaves and bobs all over the place without really answering any of their questions. His lawyer warns Howard that he's making the Committee mad.

The Committee talks to their own legal counsel. They tell him to find something and nail Prince on it. So the lawyer brings up the allegation that Howard Prince once was a bookmaker taking sports bets.

Howard's lawyer tells him that he has to give them some name. Give them Hecky's name, he's dead. If Howard doesn't show any sign of cooperation, he will be placed in jail.

The Committee starts demanding an answer from Howard. After taking this abuse for awhile, Howard gets up and says: "Fellas, I don't recognize the right of this committee to ask me these kind of questions. And, furthermore, you can all go fuck yourselves."

Florence and Howard kiss, while Howard is in handcuffs. A large group of people comes out to say goodbye to him.

 

Martin Ritt (blacklisted 1951)

Walter Bernstein (blacklisted 1950)

Zero Mostel (blacklisted 1950)

Herschel Bernardi (blacklisted 1953)

Lloyd Gough (blacklisted 1952)

Joshua Shelley (blacklisted 1952).

 

 

 

Set in the McCarthy era, Woody Allen plays the part of a sniveling nobody who gains fame as a writer in Hollywood, but only because he is fronting for the real writers, all black-listed by the communist hunters.  The fame starts to go to Allen's head causing some real consternation.

In real life, Walter Bernstein (the scriptwriter), Martin Ritt (the author), Mostel, Bernardi, Shelley, and Gough were all black-listed.

Woody Allen was terrific in the film. Also good was Andrea Marcovicci.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

 

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