by Michael Rosenthal
from Jump Cut, no. 14, 1977, pp. 7-8
THE FRONT is the first movie to come out of Hollywood that deals directly with the Hollywood blacklist of the early fifties, the time when “communist sympathizers” were effectively barred from employment in the entertainment industry. It is the first movie to deal directly with the cold war, although there have, of course, been many pictures that were part of the cold war, from straightforward indoctrination efforts such as I MARRIED A COMMUNIST in the early fifties, to the James Bond extravaganzas in the mid-sixties.
Despite all the talk about Hollywood’s “nostalgia craze,” the cold war period has been a virtual black hole so far as the national media are concerned, either taken for granted or treated as if it never existed. So far as one could tell from nostalgia products like AMERICAN GRAFFITI, the fifties were chiefly significant as the golden age of rock and roll.
But this is a gross distortion of a tremendously important period. The needs of post-WW2 U.S. imperial expansion, along with the desire of those in power to root out all traces of potential domestic challenge, combined to produce a feverish, altogether religious anti-communism. This was presented as the fundamental struggle of good vs. evil, freedom vs. slavery, “democracy” vs. “totalitarianism.” Militants were driven from the trade unions, progressive teachers were driven from the schools, while school children (I remember this vividly) had to dive under their flimsy wooden desks every month in practice A-bomb drills.
With the breakdown of what some national politicians are now referring to as “our old moral certainties,” this period is beginning to stand out in relief and Hollywood is increasingly coming to deal with it.
One device to do that, used in last year’s TV show FEAR ON TRIAL, is to present the purges as an accidental, hysterical “aberration of justice,” where unfortunate innocents got caught up with genuine communists. Unlike that show, THE FRONT was put together by blacklist victims, with no vested interest in the reputation of the film industry, who obviously desire to deal honestly with a system that tried to destroy them. Nevertheless, from a political standpoint, it represents no more of a threat to the foundations of anti-communism than the TV show did.
Woody Allen plays a small time bookie who fronts for an old school chum, a TV writer who cannot sell scripts under his own name. Allen soon accumulates a stable of blacklisted writers, and becomes the most prized writer on TV—all the more valuable because of his blameless past. Allen plays the role as a watered down version of his standard character, the self-doubting egotistical nerd. However, after he is shocked by the suicide of a blacklisted actor and challenged by his noble girlfriend, he defies a legislative committee, to the surprise of everyone except the audience, and goes to jail a martyr to the cause.
If this all sounds somehow familiar, think of all the westerns you have seen in which a spineless weakling is mistaken for a great gunfighter, becomes a tool of the local corrupt gamblers, but redeems himself in the end by standing up to them in the final shootout. THE FRONT follows this formula to the letter, modifying it only slightly to substitute a cold war United States for a frontier town.
The problem here is not that it relies on an old formula, since there is probably no such thing as a totally original story. The problem is that this particular formula destroys the possibility of understanding the situation socially or politically by turning it into a sentimentalized morality play. The world is divided between heroes and cowards. Bad times (the cold war, the corrupt town) result when the cowards outnumber the heroes; everything would be okay if people simply had a little more backbone.
Within this framework the transformation of a coward into a hero becomes the central dramatic event, regardless of what he/she is being heroic or cowardly about. The vicious character of fifties anti-communism is not denied, but instead of being examined, in a strange way it becomes subordinate to the plot. It’s as if the only function of history is to provide a test of people’s moral fiber. The result of this procedure is to leave the audience with a warm sense of smug self-righteousness, an easy identification with the “good guys,” completely undiluted by a sense of what it meant to be a communist in the fifties (or any other time)—what kinds of things communists believed in and what social forces were ranged against them.
It certainly doesn't help that the whole affair is mounted on the level of a third-grade pageant, with characters who merely symbolize various attitudes towards the blacklist and situations that would look creaky in a situation comedy. At the same time, it is also difficult not to respond to the film, knowing it was created by writers, directors and actors who had been blacklisted themselves and who have obviously held the project dear to their hearts for a long time.
Nevertheless, even if it had been well executed, a film like this can only further the process of reformulating the potentially explosive history of the fifties in a harmless and apolitical fashion.
THE FRONT brings to a mass audience at least an awareness of the anticommunist purges of the 50s that pervaded the country. In this way it opens up a previously hidden period to examination. But in terms of actually beginning the analysis needed, well-intentioned sentiment is simply not an adequate substitute for political understanding, even (or especially) in the movies.