The setting is Manhattan in the Fifties where Howard Prince (Woody Allen), a restaurant cashier and small-time bookie, is asked by his friend Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy), a blacklisted writer, to serve as his "front." Prince will sell Miller's scripts to the TV networks under his own name and if they are accepted take 10% of the payment. Not only are the scripts accepted they are hurrahed as masterpieces!
TV producer Phil Sussman (Herschel Bernardi) and script editor Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci) believe that they have discovered a major talent. Realizing that he is on to a good thing, Prince beings "fronting" for other blacklisted writers as well. He eventually falls in love with Ms. Barrett though she remains chiefly interested in him as a creative person and intellectual. Little does she know that he can barely write a grocery list or handle his financial affairs.
A witch-hunting consulting firm called Freedom Information advises the TV networks as to the reliable background and patriotism of various performers and writers. They blackball the host of Sussman's series (Zero Mostel) because he once marched in a May Day parade. In order to get back to work, the frustrated actor agrees to spy on Howard Prince. Before long the House Committee on Un-American Activities calls Prince to testify. He must decide whether to cooperate or not. Does he owe anything to the men he fronted for? Can he muster the courage to be his own man? Will he fulfill the hopeful idealism of Ms. Barrett who sees things so clearly?
There can be little doubt that The Front was conceived as an opportunity to make a serious statement about a very odious period of recent American history. Director Martin Ritt, screenplay writer Walter Bernstein, and actors Zero Mostel and Herschel Bernardi were all blacklisted in the Fifties. Ritt notes:
It was a terrible, terrible time. Children of blacklisted actors were jeered at in school as "Red Commie bastards," marriages broke up, careers were wrecked, financial ruin fell upon many. And I know at least one blacklisted performer who committed suicide because he was dead broke and unable to find work.
Walter Bernstein actually used fronts during the years he was blacklisted. "If it wasn't for fronts, I would have had to go into a different field or else starve to death." Like the author of the CBS-TV movie "Fear on Trial," Bernstein believes that the networks must be held responsible for their actions:
The most infuriating thing you ran up against was that most people didn't care. They were perfectly nice liberal people doing these terrible things. They said "It's not personal. I don't like it and I wish it weren't happening," but at the same time they were literally destroying people's lives. I strongly believe that if people at the networks and movie studios had taken a firm stand at the beginning, it wouldn't have happened. I don't think the networks and movie studios can be excused simply because they were frightened. They were part of the whole thing because they went along with it.
The acting in The Front is uniformly good and no one could fault its intentions. Ritt and Bernstein had the chance to vividly bring to life the hypocrisy, paranoia, pain, and betrayal of the McCarthy era. Instead The Front has followed the lead of The Way We Were by skirting a direct confrontation with the issue in favor of a romantic story line. Yet even admitting this crucial limitation, the movie does make its point: no matter how individuals try to evade involvement, they are ultimately drawn into the political problems around them.