Despite this haunting encapsulation of McCarthy-era desperation, The Front is far from Martin Ritt’s finest work—nor is it his best constructed. It lacks his knack for capturing understated beauty (see Paul Newman in Hud) and quiet tension (most notable in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), but it manages to succeed mainly as historically inflected reverie. The beef of the plot is carried, in a case of oddball casting, by a reasonably young Woody Allen, shortly before the canonization of his seriocomic nebbishisms in Annie Hall. The Front found Allen portraying the title’s incidental scam artist Howard Prince, an uneducated schmo who agrees to have his name attached to the creative output of his blacklisted screenwriting pals. Given Allen’s trademark proclivity to imbue his line reading with a whiny plethora of stereotypical New York idioms, the idea of Prince as an uneducated whippersnapper hanging out in a crowd of older literary types is somewhat incredulous (“Give me two Hemingways and a Faulkner,” he asks a bookseller when informed of his own feeble background).
The Front plays today at Film Forum.
Click here to read Eric Kohn’s essay on The Front.
Many of Allen’s other films utilize musical interludes as emotional anchors. Manhattan’s many Gershwin-accompanied sequences move less like narrative-fueled montages than rhapsodic escapades; the Chekhovian drudgery of September is put on hold at its midpoint for an extended blackout sequence set to a gentle piano tinkering of “On a Slow Boat to China” (used again for Famke Janssen’s East River ferry revenge in Celebrity); Sweet and Lowdown’s gentle Django Reinhardt-inspired guitar chords put an exhilaration on Sean Penn’s face that deepen his character’s subtle contradictions; Mighty Aphrodite’s inventive, belabored Greek chorus finally springs to conceptual life during its maniacally choreographed production numbers of “You Do Something to Me” and “When You’re Smiling.” It’s this last film that truly paved the way for what ultimately was inevitable for Woody Allen: a full-fledged, old-fashioned musical, with actors singing their hearts out and breaking into impromptu soft-shoes. The result, Everyone Says I Love You (1996), was something slightly baffling, a head-on plunge into a recently “lost” form that acknowledged its own limitations and wore its goofiness on its sleeve. Affectionate tribute or flat-out parody?
Click here to read Michael Koresky’s essay on Everyone Says I Love You.
God is a simultaneously overbearing and absent voice in Crimes and Misdemeanors. After listening throughout his Jewish upbringing that “the eyes of God are on us always,” Judah (Martin Landau) becomes a nonbeliever who is nevertheless haunted by the figure of an all-encompassing father. When his abandoned mistress (Anjelica Huston) threatens to tell his wife about their affair and make public the irregularities in his fundraising to build an ophthalmologic wing in his hospital, Judah enlists the aid of his mobster brother to have her killed. Much like in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, God is conflated with an underlying moral structure—one that is confronted by the protagonists of both the film and the novel. Additionally, just as in the book, murder is a pragmatic solution, and the victim is objectified as an obstacle that simply needs to be removed.
Click here to read Cecilia Sayad’s essay on Crimes and Misdemeanors.