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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
"Take care of yourself. The world is full of sharks."
DVD ReviewFor those of us who were born long after the fact, the blacklist in Hollywood seems like a relic of an ancient time, the industry equivalent of a Salem witch trial, persecuting those merely because of their beliefs. (Then again, there are decided similarities between the McCarthyites and those in the current administration who would impugn your integrity merely because you have the temerity to disagree with them. Shockingly, and despite his disagreeing, John Ashcroft does not in fact have a monopoly on patriotism.) The Front is an acidic sort of valentine to those times, almost, full of outrage against those who foisted this Fascistic scheme on us, but bursting with affection and admiration by those whose lives were ruined because they were true to their hearts. The end of the Cold War has made Communism seem almost quaint—unless, that is, you're a citizen of the People's Republic of China—but this movie is a reminder of the ways in which power at all levels was mobilized against the slightest suspicion of the Red Menace.
It's always a little unusual and jarring to see Woody Allen in other people's movies, but director Martin Ritt uses him perfectly. Here, Allen plays Howard Prince, the cashier at a New York deli—if you opened the dictionary to the word "schnook," you might find a picture of Howard. Alfred (Michael Murphy), an old buddy, comes to call on him: Alfred is a television writer whose avowed Communism has made him unemployable. But Al has a scheme: would Howard be willing to pass off Alfred's teleplays as his own? For 10%, Howard is in, and he becomes Alfred's front, the public face that the network can put on the scripts by talented but blacklisted writers.
Of course Howard's work is startlingly successful, and soon he starts fronting for two more of Al's blacklisted comrades—the counter guy is the toast of the town, living the high life, passing off all of their work as his own. The film rightly hates the politics of the time, but it loves these early days of live television—in many respects it's similar to My Favorite Year, in which Mark Linn-Baker plays a Woody Allen stand-in. This is also a film full of great supporting work, especially from Zero Mostel as Hecky Brown, a blacklisted actor. In many other film performances (e.g. The Producers), the screen doesn't seem big enough to contain Mostel's astounding energy, and his unrelenting hamminess; but as Hecky, he's at once hilarious and heartbreaking, in a devastating performance that may be the best of his career. (Also very effective are a young Danny Aiello, as a fruit stand owner making bets with Howard, New York's worst bookie; and Remak Ramsey as an investigator, McCarthyism incarnate.)
No doubt this is due in large measure to the personal resonances of the material for him, and for others on the picture—as the closing credits tell us, Mostel was a blacklist victim himself, as was Ritt, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and Herschel Bernardi, who is wonderful as a network executive caving to the political pressure. Woody is great as a stupid guy trying to pass himself off as a grand intellect—"I couldn't write a grocery list, I'm practically illiterate"—and he's hilarious trying to school himself, much like you might imagine a deli man would: "Give me two Hemingways and a Faulkner." There are also some great onscreen pairings that no doubt will put you in mind of other Allen projects, like seeing Woody and Murphy teamed up here just before making Manhattan, and seeing Mostel browbeat his screenwriter from Don't Drink the Water.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: Michael Chapman, one of the great cinematographers, shot this, the same year he also photographed Taxi Driver—together, they're a testament to his range and craft as an artist. His work remains stellar, but the print could have used a healthy cleanup before coming to DVD, as there's a fair amount of debris evident in many scenes. And of course go with the original aspect ratio, not the icky pan-and-scan version that comes with.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: Audio is fairly clean, with good balance and little hiss.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Japanese, French, Korean with remote access
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Lost in Yonkers, Manhattan Murder Mystery
Extras Review: Only chapter stops, subtitles, and trailers, which is a serious disappointment, given the opportunity this provides to inform 21st-century audiences about the historical circumstances of this story.
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsA prettier print and more historical context would have been very welcome, but nonetheless, this is a sharp, funny, heartbreaking movie about one of the ugliest times in the history of popular entertainment in this country, and one to which disturbing parallels with our own time can be all too readily drawn.
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