Historical events as relived through film have always encountered the common problem of missing what humanity has learned from the actual event. More often than not, films that tackle historical events tend to focus on how the film would be as artistic as possible, setting aside the significance of the actual event itself. Martin Ritt’s The Front, in this sense, stands as a testimony to the common flaws of historical allusions as the film takes on the controversial subject of the blacklisting of American entertainment professionals.
The Front revolves around restaurant cashier and bookmaker Howard Prince (Woody Allen), who allows, Alfred Miller Michael Murphy, a scriptwriter friend blacklisted by major production companies due to alleged support for Communist ideologies, to credit his name for the screenplays he pitches to television executives. In desperate need for money, Prince immediately concurs with Miller’s idea. As Prince rises to prominence, the House Committee on Un-American Activities starts to get suspicious on the themes of his scripts and eventually take interest in probing his work.
As history holds, major companies in the American entertainment industry blacklisted most of its professionals due to government suspicion of their political beliefs and affiliations. Writers, producer, directors, actors, musicians, and other individuals in show business were laid off from work because of allegations of sympathy for the Communist cause, particularly for the American Communist Party.
Although the impact of America’s obsession with eradicating communism was felt in every field of endeavor, it has become most conspicuous in popular culture. The House Committee on Un-American Activities failed to establish and confirm the entertainment professionals’ participation on Communist activities. However, the highly controversial house committee managed to create substantial tensions within the industry. Tensions that paved the way for the loss of jobs, psychological scars and even death to several of the individuals involved, as well as belief restriction leading to extreme paranoia and destruction of compassion within the industry.
The Front’s plot actually draws from actual events and circumstances of the major production blacklisting of most of the film’s cast and crew from every major production company during the height of the American government’s efforts to rid the United States of Communist sympathizers. The Front, in this sense becomes historically accurate as it makes a direct assault on the industry adverse damaging Communist paranoia of the mid-20th century.
In making historical allusions, regardless of the medium used, does not necessarily incline depiction of actual events. Instead, the important factor in alluding actual events heavily relies on capturing the very essence of the actual event, and its overall importance in the advancement of the people affected. As such, plot is an integral part of a film, especially if it pays tribute to actual events that created social tremors.
Generally, the film engages viewers by taking the characters’ ordeals in levels that are more personal and making them understand the emotional trauma of being blacklisted and being rendered jobless. Evidently, the vestiges of the film’s compassion toward the blacklisted individuals were felt through Miller’s desperate attempt to use Prince’s identity.
The film’s direction, however, fails in giving out the actual significance of the dark event in American entertainment history and the destructive nature of politics. While the film superficially addresses the traumatizing event, the production people’s point of view starts to become unreasonable, and at the same time emotionally manipulative. This is because the film finds contentment by settling for a narrative of highly emotional, liberal sentimentality, and common person coming-of-age.
Regardless of age, educational background, socio-economic status, gender orientation, or profession, stories and metaphors found on films either reflect or influence public perspective on the world, on the society in which they live in, and in political affairs. Aesthetic elements of film such as plot, story, and characters then become important elements in expressing the film’s central idea. Similarly, it is also important to see a film’s cause, beyond what superficial elements such as story, manifest.
The Front, in its statement of what is blatant: that it is every person’s responsibility to stand up against his or her critics becomes a disappointment to the very purpose of film, at least in a social context. Such disappointment is most heavily seen in the film’s blaming of the powerful networks for not having the moral fiber to defend the industry and their harassed colleagues; The Front further destroys the purpose of the motion picture as a powerful tool of communication. .
To solidify its establishment of lack of deeper meaning, The Front ends with a blind conviction rendering the movie and its attack on the historical blacklisting and communist scare senseless. By disparaging the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ sub-committee, the motion picture has ignored the impact of the blacklist to the industry veterans and the industry itself as it allowed its unsuspecting hero to get incarcerated rather than pursuing justice.
For more than a century, the fear of communism and other psychoses dead set against communist principles have been recurring themes in the American political landscape. The themes of poverty, injustice, and prejudice have become a cliché in the Hollywood cinematic tradition. The delineation of such themes becomes another manifestation on how the film’s perspective starts to roll on a downhill.
The Front’s weakened and pacified political tone becomes its failure to establish any ideological justification for what it tries to tackle. By throwing away the basic premise of dealing with the paranoia and the trauma of the Hollywood blacklists in the 40s and 50s, the movie delineates its central theme and slowly turns its focus into Howard Prince’s rise and fall as a seemingly commendable writer.
As previously mentioned, characters are part of a film’s overall aesthetic. This is, in large part, brought by the fact that characters play the essential role of delivering the film’s message. In this sense, poor character development and proper casting becomes a vital problem effectively showing and communicating the significance of the film.
The Front’s aesthetic representation and the reality of a depressed mid-20th century American entertainment industry becomes compromised because of the strengths and weaknesses of character portrayals. First is on how Howard Prince never is questioned whenever fronting for his friends during script pitches. Prince never examines the material he submits, neither does he gives details on the screenplays he pitches. Network executives before considering any script for production needs to examine it or at least discuss it with the writer.
Heckey Brown (Zero Mostel) on the other hand, saves the entire film from total disenchantment and frustration. Because his character, the larger-than-life television actor and personality who lost his glory by being blacklisted, at least stands as the only element of the film that exhibits the tremendous effect of the blacklisting in the lives, minds, and careers of the people on the receiving end of Communist fear.
The contents of films, indeed have an on a society’s collective behavior; blacklists, bans, and other suppressive policies are pointless if films do not have the tendency to influence viewers. However, it is as equally important to consider the content of films based on its significance in the moral, social, and historical perspective, especially if the film is to be based on an event that people have actually experienced.