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I Like to Watch (Instantly): The Front

Notable titles from the Netflix Watch Instantly world

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Directed by Martin Ritt

Cast: Woody Allen, Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Michael Murphy, Andrea Marcovicci, Remak Ramsay, Marvin Lichterman, Lloyd Gough, David Margulies, Joshua Shelley, Norman Rose, Charles Kimbrough, Josef Sommer, Danny Aiello, Georgann Johnson, Scott McKay

The Front
The Front

The Front is one of the few films where Woody Allen acts without writing or directing (although I definitely suspect him of improvising), and it stands out as a container for one of his best performances. I realize he’s been making sub-par, semi-stupid films since, what, Radio Days? But as an actor saddled with a screen persona as archetypal as Groucho Marx, he’s never been better put to use than in this heartfelt 1976 comedy-drama exploring the chilling effect the House Un-American Activities Committee had on the entertainment industry. Certainly this is the only film where Zero Mostel and Woody Allen share screen time, which is worth something all by itself.

Allen is the “front” of the title, an unambitious cashier (and bookie) who agrees to pass off his blacklisted friend’s television scripts as his own. The comedy arises from the farce of the masquerade, the tragedy from the human toll of the HUAC witch hunt. It’s a subtle balance that director Martin Ritt (himself a victim of the blacklist) pulls off with flair: there are belly laughs followed by moments of utter grimness. Some people object to that; I don’t. The bookending of the film with Sinatra’s “Young at Heart” is inspired, and the final line is a precious moment of anti-authoritarian wish-fulfillment. I declare this film unjustly overlooked. Netflix rip is not only clean and widescreen but HD.