17 July 2011

The Front, A Film About Doing the Right Thing

I don't necessarily believe in evil, but I do know that humans can conspire to do horrible things to one another. Often these people have great power, they can even be governments. In such instances it is incumbent upon good people to, individually and in groups, rise in opposition. Classic examples include the solo effort of Rosa Parks and the group that was behind her, the Civil Rights Movement. Simply put, bravery is required.

That is the simple but eloquently told tale within director Martin Ritt's film The Front (1976). It is an obvious sort of film that wears its ambitions on its sleeves. Nothing wrong with that. It takes on McCarthyism, an easy target but one worth battering away. Something so odious as blacklisting and insisting that people name names deserves a good going over every now and again, no matter how far in the rear view mirror the 1950's become. It was a shameful period in American history that would be far too easy to see repeated.

The Front is about a nobody named Howard Prince who works as a cashier and bookie. A bookie who can't always cover his bets and frequently has to borrow money from his successful brother. Prince is played by Woody Allen, who had already made a name for himself as a director and was just a year away from shooting into the stratosphere with Annie Hall (1977).

Prince has a friend, Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) who is a recently blacklisted writer. When Miller asks his pal to "front" for him and put his name on TV scripts for 10% of the profits, Prince doesn't hesitate. After all they're friends. Eventually Prince picks up two more blacklisted clients. For Prince this is simply good business and helping some guys out. He does not seem to have a political bone in his body. What does he know from politics?

In working with the TV show, Prince finds a lover, Florence (Andrea Marcovicci) and another friend, a comic actor named Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel) who is in the process of being blacklisted because of his inadequacies at naming names. It is through these two that Prince ultimately develops that most valuable and vexing inner voice, the conscience.

It is terribly easy to be apathetic, to be in the large "no opinion" camp. It not only makes life safe, but easy as well. After all, self-interest will keep a person atop what one needs to be aware of in order to survive and prosper. All that stuff and nonsense about "getting involved" or "taking a stand" or -- God forbid -- making a sacrifice, that's for the other guy. The majority of us who have formulated strong views on any topic are far too busy to risk anything by actually doing anything.

Hecky's last words to Prince are a warning: "Take care of yourself, the waters are full of sharks." It's when those sharks circle us, when we look them in the eye and see them devour those around us, that we suddenly take a keen interest in doing more than treading water.

The fate of Hecky, and the nagging morality of Florence, and the lot of those he fronts for, begin to gnaw away at Howard's tough exterior. And when he is finally called before one of those committees that is trying to purify America by rooting out what it considers Communist influence (i.e. lefties of all kind) it is then that Prince becomes a full blown hero. And he does it quite eloquently by telling them: "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."

Howard Prince became successful by pretending to be someone else. He paid off debts, bought family members gifts, picked up the check at dinner, moved into a nice apartment, and traveled in more refined circles. By virtue of being a nobody he was able to become somebody. Materialistically he may not have had it all, but it was plenty what he had. But ultimately he gained something more valuable -- himself. There's a lot to be gained by giving it all up in the name of a greater good. For one thing it's a quick route to self esteem. The real kind. People often fantasize about telling the boss to go screw, but imagine doing it to further a belief, a cause. And not just taking on an employer but your own government when it is treading on people's rights.

The Front was written, directed, produced and included in its cast (notably Mr. Mostel) a number of people from the entertainment world who had themselves been blacklisted. The anger that must have lingered, the indignity, was channeled into an excellent motion picture. They made a movie about how supposedly well intentioned men subverted the and skirted around and ignored the U.S. Constitution and in so doing damaged careers and even ruined lives. They centered the story around one man who started the story not giving a damn and went on to be a hero of the cause. Allen, by the way, gave an excellent performance. Today I watched The Front for maybe the fifth or sixth time. It gets better with each viewing. Ritt let the story speak for itself. He had a strong script and a good cast. Best of all he had an important theme centered around a critical period in American history. The film's been around for 35 years and shows no signs of age.

The Front opens and closes with Frank Sinatra's lovely rendition of Young at Heart. It's one of those deals where I'm not sure what they mean by using a particular piece of music, but readily acknowledge that it sure feels right. Here are the lyrics.


Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you
If you're young at heart
For it's hard, you will find, to be narrow of mind
If you're young at heart
You can go to extremes with impossible schemes
You can laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams
And life gets more exciting with each passing day
And love is either in your heart or on it's way
Don't you know that it's worth every treasure on earth
To be young at heart
For as rich as you are it's much better by far
To be young at heart
And if you should survive to 105
Look at all you'll derive out of being alive
Then here is the best part, you have a head start
If you are among the very young at heart
And if you should survive to 105
Look at all you'll derive out of being alive
Then here is the best part, you have a head start
If you are among the very young at heart

1 comment:

download movies said...

Not that great but the last line makes the movie well worth seeing.