Friday, February 28, 2014

THE FRONT: Blu-ray (Columbia 1976) Twilight Time

The post WWII era in America is frequently referenced in history books as ‘those fabulous fifties’ – a moniker that, at least, accurately signifies the nation’s new-found economic prosperity. To all intents and purposes, this launched the ‘baby boomer’ generation and gave rise to the suburbs, making the shag carpet and poodle skirt the height of domestic chic. It wasn’t all hearts and flowers, however. The decade’s button-down conservatism, while reporting to speak to the founding ideals of this great nation, equally engendered a silent socio-sexual repression; increasingly a counterpoint to the constitutional precepts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, still restricted on the basis of gender and racial inequality. In hindsight, middle-class morality ushered in a decade of stifling conformity and the promise of even greater homogenized panaceas ahead…if only one could follow ‘the rules’; a sort of redefined freedom, optimistically unencumbered by anxieties about the bomb and cold war.  
Perhaps nowhere were the winds of change more intensely felt than in Hollywood. In fact, by the end of 1949 it had already become abundantly clear to the moguls that something was desperately amiss in their uber-glamorous capital of the entertainment world. For starters, rising costs had impacted their ability to spend lavishly.  Tried and true genres (the musical, the western) practically guaranteed to perform well, had suddenly fallen out of favor with audiences in search of more realism, putting added strain on the studio’s already dwindling coffers. Adding to this anxious fray was television – at first considered inconsequential and thus ignored, but cutting theater attendance by nearly half within the first two years of its debut. Hollywood en masse suddenly found itself in very unfamiliar territory; having to keep up, catch up or merely maintain their status against the onslaught from this new technology.
Conversely, at a time when Hollywood really could not afford to invest in itself, the studios became embroiled in a very expensive race to retool their dream factories. Cinemascope, six track stereo, 3D; these were innovations to briefly generated renewed excitement and buzz within the industry. None were new, per say. In fact, Fox had contemplated the widescreen revolution as far back as 1930 with Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail – an epic dud. Walt Disney pioneered Fantasound – a cumbersome preamble to stereo – for Fantasia (1940), while the polarizing ‘third dimension’ – like the creation of TV – had already debuted as mere gimmick at New York’s World’s Fair in 1939. WWII delayed the inevitable. But as the new decade began, it must have seemed to the old monarchs that the earth had suddenly and inexplicably shifted from under the industry. Worse: the studios were being forced into a divestiture of their theater chains, crippling their once magisterial reign in distribution. 
But an even more insidious government intervention was about to get underway. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC for short, and, first established in 1938 as an organization in charge of investigating allegations of subversive activities) began their systematic dismemberment of the industry’s talent – employing a top down analysis to weed out communists and communist sympathizers. The Red Scare, the blacklist, the McCarthy witch hunts: however one chooses to regard it, this was the beginning of an unseemly period that crushed careers, ruined lives and changed the face of Hollywood – forever.
Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976) is, at once, a deceptively sugar-coated dramedy about the blacklist, and a fascinating time capsule, expertly using dark humor to expose a far more grim reality. There is an old adage, ‘Dying is easy. Comedy is hard’ – rather prophetic, given The Front’s abysmal performance at the box office. For The Front is not a movie easily digestible as either drama or comedy. With Woody Allen and Zero Mostel as its headliners, The Front was arguably mis-perceived by critics as lacking spontaneity. But from the moment we segue into the opening B&W pastiche of newsreels – increasingly less nostalgic – to its’ very last scene, with an ebullient Woody Allen being led away in handcuffs by scowl-faced G-men, knowing his fraudulent alter ego, Howard Prince, has taken a stand against the government’s intrusion on civil liberties, The Front assumes a moodily magnificent, occasionally somber, thumbing of the nose at HUAC’s strong-armed tactics: no small feat, considering HUAC remained active until a year before this movie’s release, only to be consolidated under the House Judiciary Committee thereafter. Hence, its influences have never entirely gone away.
The Front’s reputation – largely ignored and/or forgotten over the years – seems to have been negatively impacted (ironically so) by Woody Allen and Zero Mostel. Indeed, each was regarded as a major comedy genius; Woody’s esoteric intellectualizations sublimely melded to Zero’s larger-than-life gesticulations. The chief difficulty for audiences then, as it arguably remains so today, is getting over our built-in expectations. After all, it’s Woody Allen that we’ve come to see – and Zero Mostel to a lesser extent.
Fair enough – Allen isn’t directing himself. By all accounts, he’s also staying relatively faithful to Walter Bernstein’s screenplay, if not entirely able to restrain himself from a few glib Woody-isms along the way.  And Mostel too is fighting his more comedic inspirations to remain truer to his character as written; a merciless ham, desperate for work after being branded a ‘communist sympathizer’; forced to spy on Allen’s hack writer, though ultimately judging him a ‘good man’, and thereafter leaping from his rented hotel balcony in utter disgrace – distant shades of real-life actor, John Garfield’s untimely passing (a fatal heart attack brought on after he was called to testify on behalf of HUAC in their infamous ‘naming of names’ public hearings).
In hindsight, it’s rather abhorrent to consider how many ‘creatives’ were destroyed on both sides of the blacklist – the now famous ‘Hollywood Ten’ going to prison, sacrificing themselves for their beliefs by bucking the system tooth and nail. On the flip side was director Elia Kazan, branded a pariah for complying with his subpoena and testifying on the committee’s behalf. You just couldn’t win in those days. Even those few who managed to escape the allegations by the skin of their teeth were likely to have an open FBI file on their daily activities for the rest of their lives.
At the time of its’ release, The Front was heavily criticized on two ‘fronts’ (pun intended); first, for failing to provide the expected yuk-yuks befitting the formidable talent of its two stars, and second, for presumably being too light-hearted about this very bleak chapter in American history. By 1975, HUAC’s hearings had been rather perfidiously swept under the carpet, the general population suffering from collective amnesia to the point that most ticket buyers knew nothing (or even cared…even more frightening) about the historical accuracies screenwriter Walter Bernstein had managed to infuse into the movie.
To set the scene, The Front opens with a glorious montage in B&W: snapshots of a supposedly simpler time melodically serenaded by Frank Sinatra. “Fairytales can come true…it can happen to you…if…” As we listen to the classic ballad, Young at Heart a series of newsreels flash before us. Senator Joseph McCarthy, who would come to represent the austere face of HUAC, is seen on the day of his wedding - cherub-esque and immaculately groomed. We shift to the Korean War, then an atypically large suburban American family taking cover from the threat of nuclear annihilation in their brick and mortar backyard bomb shelter. Don’t worry, kiddies. It’ll all be over by Howdy-Doody time. A New York tickertape parade for Gen. Macarthur follows; then, glimpses of an elated Harry Truman, and moments later, Mamie and Ike Eisenhower; inserts of the reigning Miss America, and, some fashion pixies, showing off their elegantly absurd swimwear; boxing champion, Rocky Marciano, baseball great Joe DiMaggio, and finally, that ultimate sex symbol who would go on to an immortality all her own - Marilyn Monroe.
Yet, something is off; Sinatra’s effervescent lyrics increasingly at odds with the images evolving on the screen. Inserts of the Rosenbergs – Julius and Ethel – who, as American citizens, were tried for espionage, convicted and executed, illustrates an America blindsided by its fear of communism. We see plane loads of bombs falling from the sky, glimpses of submersible tanks ominously rising out of muddy troughs; a wounded soldier coddling the face of his fallen comrade on the battlefield. The disjunction between these genuine moments caught on camera and the orchestrated fabulosity from this ‘modern age’ concludes with inserts of the maimed, crippled and emotionally scarred, given their disconsolate homecoming by aged parents and teary-eyed girls they left behind. No…this is decidedly not what they signed up for when they joined the war effort; not ‘those fabulous fifties’ given to froth surface sheen, and, lip service in films like Bye Bye Birdie, American Graffiti and Cry Baby.  
We regress to a seedy little café where cashier/bookie, Howard Prince (Woody Allen) is reading the racing form, unexpectedly delighted by the appearance of an old friend, Alfred Miller (the sadly underrated and underused, Michael Murphy). Miller, a one-time successful television writer, confides in Howard that he has been blacklisted for suspected communist activities. Over a game of chess the two old friends concoct a plan; Miller to write scripts and Howard to pass himself off to the networks as the writer, taking ten percent off the top for his complicity in the charade.
Howard willingly agrees to this scheme until he is introduced to winsome Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci); the producer of the TV series, Grand Central Station. He also meets the show’s hammy narrator, Hershel ‘Hecky’ Brown (Zero Mostel). Both Hecky and Florence are about to play a more integral role in Howard’s life. Immediately smitten with Florence, Howard coaxes her into going out on a date. Howard’s flirtations bring out her gentler qualities, though she admits to being star-struck by his innate talent.  Despite his arrangement with Miller, Howard can’t seem to make ends meet, relying on his brother, Meyer (Marvin Lichterman) to extend him loans. It isn’t working. Howard owes everybody, even the green grocery (Danny Aiello). 
So Howard comes up with an even bigger fraud. He’ll pinch hit scripts for two more of Miller’s blacklisted friends; Phelps (David Margulies) and Sam (Joshua Shelley). Taking ten percent from each, Howard’s thirty-percent allows him to live comfortably and pay off all outstanding debts. It’s all rather good, except that the head of the Freedom of Information Services, an austere character by the name of Hennessey (Remak Ramsay) has taken a particular interest in Howard’s increasing popularity in primetime – that, and the way he incomprehensibly manages to write several noteworthy teleplays at a time, seemingly without writer’s block despite burning the proverbial candle at both ends.
Hennessey recalls Hecky to his office, threatening him with the blacklist for a relationship he fostered with a young girl nearly two decades earlier who just happened to belong to the Young Communist’s League. But getting Hecky to spy on Howard proves problematic; particularly after Howard befriends the old ham after he is fired from Grand Central. Hecky asks Howard to drive him out to one of the summer retreats in the Catskills. Hecky’s reputation precedes him, the hotel’s guests thronging to get his autograph. The hotel’s owner, Harry Stone (MacIntyre Dixon) had promised Hecky $500 for this weekend engagement; a venue he used to command at $3000. The price has since been knocked down to $250.
Demoralized, but desperate to survive, Hecky pleads for $300. Harry placates Hecky by offering to get up a collection from the boys in the band and the stage hands. However, after Hecky has raised the roof inside the hotel’s ballroom, getting a standing ovation no less, Harry quietly informs him $250 is still the going rate.  Pushed to the point of self-destruction, Hecky instead lashes out at Harry; the crowd shocked by their confrontation. Howard hurries Hecky away while Harry continues to spew diatribes about Hecky being a communist fink.
Back in town, the romance between Howard and Florence reaches an impasse when she decides to quit her job as a show of solidarity against Hecky’s firing.  Howard is stunned by her impetuosity; dismayed, actually. He makes it clear to Florence he is very disappointed she has thrown away her promising career on what he considers a whim. Wounded by Howard’s lack of support, Florence breaks off their relationship.
A short while later, Howard is informed by Grand Central’s producer, Phil Sussman (Herschel Bernardi) that he has been ordered to testify before HUAC in a closed hearing. Howard is terrified, confiding in Miller, Phelps and Sam; each advising him to do something different. Miller wants Howard to walk away, while Sam hopes he will plead the Fifth Amendment.  Phelps urges Howard to submit to the committee’s questions to save his own skin.  At first, Howard decides to do just that. Why not? And why sacrifice his newfound prosperity, and for what? Principles?!?! You can’t eat on principles.
Ah, but then comes the deal breaker – Hecky. Admitting his career as an entertainer is finished, the deflated comic quietly rents a flashy hotel room at the Ritz. He orders champagne and tips the porter before quietly popping the cork, taking a sip and then opening the balcony window to jump to his death. Director Martin Ritt’s handling of Hecky’s suicide is, frankly, poetic; a tour de force done almost entirely as pantomime; Zero Mostel’s dolefully expressive eyes unable to hide behind his Cheshire grin as he stuffs wads of cash into the porter’s vest pocket, quietly locking the door behind them, and sauntering about the suite of rooms with bittersweet amusement.
Cinematographer, Michael Chapman’s camera suddenly allows Mostel to move out of frame, followed by the unassuming sound of a window being opened, a blast of air and then, the right side of the frame suddenly filling with billowing drapes; the camera slowly panning over to the open pane, with not a sound heard from the street far below. It’s a bone-chilling moment – expertly played by Mostel – the grand tragedy derived not from a flashy display of emotions, or some cinematographic bravado, but the startling lack of anything beyond abject silence to mark this sad little moment of lonely farewell. This is how the world will end, dear friends…not with a bang, but a whimper.  
The next day Howard, still fearful to show his allegiances, quietly observes Hecky’s funeral from a distance, noticing Florence as she openly comforts his widow. Later, Howard arrives at Florence’s humble upstairs apartment to make his confession. He isn’t a writer. He’s a hack – ‘a front’ – for blacklisted talent. Florence is at once outraged, disenchanted and bitterly shaken; Howard pressing her on the point that she only cared for him because she was in love with ‘the writer’ – a figure she has utterly romanticized all out of proportion. Upon learning Miller is in the hospital suffering from an acute ulcer, Howard elects to change his plan of action.
We now move into the film’s magnum opus; the specially convened HUAC committee hearing; Howard doing everything possible to infuriate the already unsmiling committee members, exposing their absurdities but without incriminating himself; his nervous attorney (Norman Rose) attempting damage control to avert a disaster; as it turns out – unsuccessfully. Howard tells the committee to go fuck themselves and proudly exits the room. As a reprise of Sinatra’s Young at Heart swells to engulf the soundtrack, we see Howard and Florence at the train station - in love once more; embracing on the platform. As Miller, Sam and Phelps cheer, Howard is carted off by an FBI G-man, presumably to serve out his prison term for refusing to name names.
It would be improper to suggest The Front’s happy ending does not diffuse the more sinister aspects of its story. In fact, the ending confirms, rather than denies the lyrics in Sinatra’s ballad. Fairytales do, indeed, come true for Howard and Florence – in love and presumably, soon to be reunited once Howard’s term of imprisonment has been served. In losing his career – which wasn’t his to begin with – not only has Howard struck a blow for true love, but more importantly, for the civil liberties every American citizen has the right to claim, currently denied a select group of artists under McCarthy’s reign of interrogation. More important, however; Howard has grown into his own man; no longer sponging off rich relatives or plagiarizing loyal friends – albeit with their complicity and for a stipend.
Let us be clear: The Front is not a Woody Allen picture. By separating it from Allen’s own amassed works, it is more than possible to admire The Front on its own terms. Screenwriter, Walter Bernstein and director Martin Ritt – both blacklisted for a time – have pooled together some very astute observations about the Red Scare and its impact on private lives; infusing their story with caustic wit and a far grittier counterattack. It’s still a comedy, just not a ‘funny’ one in any conventional sense.  But there’s both style and substance here; a winning combination that appears to have thrown most critics for a considerable loop.
Perhaps the real problem here is Woody Allen. Although Allen’s performance is irritably resplendent it cannot escape that indelibly ingrained public image collectively thought of as Woody Allen; an entity unlike most any other, instantly identifiable, but, regrettably, more so as his own brand than as an actor.  Still, Allen proves himself worthy in The Front. Setting aside most – if not all – of his ingrained mannerisms, he gives us a portrait of someone who starts out looking out for number one, but gradually comes to the realization life is a contact sport in which the player must be willing to take on the team and grow from his experiences as a human being.
It is a sincere regret actor Michael Murphy gets lost in this shuffle. After his Alfred Miller instigates the plot, he is all but relegated to mere cameo as the story takes off in a different direction. For the most part, the Bernstein screenplay is tightly interwoven, most of its narrative threads admirably sustained throughout the duration of the film. As example, even after we lose the physical presence of Zero Mostel, his Hecky Brown is never farther than arm’s reach, particularly within Howard’s struggling social consciousness. And revisiting the film’s again, hats off to Bernstein and Ritt for their tight maneuvering through these narrative complexities without ever weighing down the story. In the final analysis, The Front is compelling; as waggish about the ever-unraveling calamity that is the human condition as it remains dead-pan serious regarding perhaps our most ridiculous pursuit of all – to discover everlasting happiness. Go ahead, quantify happiness. I dare you.   
Sony’s Blu-ray transfer, released as a limited edition via Twilight Time, leaves something to be desired. Sony has, in fact, done all they can. The results, however, reveal some residual softness in the color sequences immediately following the spectacularly crisp B&W montage. Scenes shot under low-lighting conditions suffer a slight blurriness with exaggerated levels of film grain. That said; these shortcomings (if one chooses to regard them as such) are all inherent in the organic film-based elements – not a flaw in the remastering. Flesh tones – always a solid barometer in gauging color fidelity - have been accurately rendered and color, on the whole, is nicely saturated, though not eye-popping. This, of course, is as it should be. Contrast is very strong and fine detail is extremely impressive, particularly in close-up.
The 1.0 DTS audio is surprisingly aggressive; Sinatra’s ballad, in particular, sounding very robust. Extras include an isolated score – not so hot, since what’s here really isn’t a score per say, but a few all too brief cues by composer David Grusin; a big band swing motif spread over three transitional cues, a pensive piano solo – again, brief – and a kernel of a ‘love theme’ – just extemporaneous tinkling, seemingly without a thread of actual melody. More richly rewarding is the audio commentary featuring TT’s Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo, here affectionately waxing with the film’s co-star, Andrea Marcovicci, who provides wonderful insight about her working relationships with Woody Allen, Zero Mostel and others in the cast. Aside: I’ll just go on record here, having listened to my share of woefully bad commentary tracks, to point out that Twilight Time’s have never lacked in either integrity or information. The Front’s audio commentary is no exception. Again, Kirgo gives us discerning liner notes. Great stuff. Break out your wallets. The Front is another must have from Twilight Time!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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