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The Front (Columbia) The Pink Panther Strikes Again (Odeon, Leicester Square) The Enforcer (Warner 2) The Ritz (ABC, Shaftesbury Avenue)
In 1953 I was blacklisted in Hollywood for refusing to write a 'sincere letter' repudiating some articles I'd once written for my university newspaper. I was lucky, because a Specific accusation had been made against me (by unknown persons, of course). Many witch-hunt victims never were told why they were sacked. The most pitiful cases were the Political innocents who, having nothing to recant, were up against a blank wall. 'Tell me what to confess and I'll turn myself inside out—but tell me!' Zero Mostel, as a vaguely leftish comic in The Front (AA certificate) Pleads with the mysterious 'Mr Hennessey,' the proprietor of an agency which specialises in 'clearing' suspect TV performers. It's a chillingly accurate scene in a sharply funny, unusually honest film.
At the end of The Front, the credits tell us that director Martin Ritt, writer Walter .Bernstein, and several of the actors—including Mostel—were all blacklisted in the 1950s. We seldom have films from Hollywood which give us such a first-hand taste Of genuine human experience. (I note, with grim satisfaction, that the company which blacklisted me bankrolled The Front. Viva Showbiz)
'Howard, I can't write any more,' a New York TV writer tells his schnooky friend
oody Allen across their weekly chess game. .Whatsamatta, Alfred, writer's block ?' Inquires Woody, a two-bit gambler and barr, nom cashier. No, says the writer, he's been nlacklisted by the networks but has a family t° support. What he needs is a 'front,' a go11;etween who will put his name on black ted scripts, collect the 81000 fee—minus '13 Per cent for his trouble—and hand over the proceeds to the original writer.
. Woody couldn't care less about the moral
Or politics of the blacklist but agrees because he went to school with Alfred—and ,''cause he owes money to a tough local rbler. The arrangement is so successful— Cody soon becomes a famous TV name that he takes on two more talented blacknstees to front for. The thriving business ,flables him to pay off debts and date the neautiful and idealistic assistant producer of the TV series he 'writes' for. And he bec2,1l'es pally with the show's star, Mostel, 710 gets sucked into the blacklist machinery necause he once marched in a May Day aarade and subscribed to the Daily Worker. kk,But I never read a word of it.') Mostel is u'ackmailed by Mr Hennessey into spying
on Woody, and together they drive up to a mountain resort whose owner, knowing that Mostel is semi-blacklisted, has hired him at one-tenth of his former salary. (It's an effective way of showing the two-facedness of customers, including TV networks and movie studios, who often knowingly used 'fronted' material but exploited the blacklist to drive prices down to rock bottom.) Eventually Woody too is subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee but, inspired by his girl, tells them to go to hell. The last scene is pure Woody Allen fairy tale: he is taken to prison in handcuffs amidst the cheers of a crowd of heroworshipping sympathisers and his loving girl friend. It wasn't quite like that, but still.
As The Front makes clear, the blacklist period was not an honourable one. Informing on friends was the way you kept your job; apologising for your past was the sine qua non of respectability. 'The Committee doesn't care about names—they care about people giving names,' one of the blacklisted writers tells Woody when he is agonising over whether to co-operate or resist. Without exception, the major TV and film companies colluded with the blacklist; their employment policies were practically dictated by tinhorn super-patriotic hustlers like `Mr Hennessey' and his Freedom Information Service (in real life, mostly ex-FBI agents on the make). 'I don't do the hiring,' Hennessey smarmily tells Mostel, 'I only advise on Americanism,'
Correctly in my view—despite the suicides (Mostel throws himself out of a hotel window) and other personal tragedies triggered by the blacklist—The Front concentrates on its totally absurd humour. Hypocrisy was the keynote. There is a coolly funny scene where Woody Allen, giving himself airs as a serious writer, haughtily refuses to gobetween for his blacklisted friends any more because their comedy scripts are now beneath his dignity. And there are lots of nice Woody Allen-type touches; on their first date his girl says that the biggest sin in her well-bred suburban family was to raise one's voice. He replies, 'In mine it was to buy retail.' The icy black humour of the confrontations between Mr Hennessey and Mostel obviously stems from the filmmakers' own experience. 'Write me a letter
from your heart, saying that you were a dupe.. Remember, sincerity is the key,' Hennessey warns the confused comedian.
The Front has the same flaw as Lillian Hellman's recent book about her blacklisting, Scoundrel Time. Neither mentions the many thousands of non-showbiz individuals similarly trapped by nameless, faceless accusers. (For every Hollywood blacklistee I knew, there were ten factory workers, housewives and teachers knocked off by HUAC.) And there's hardly a hint that the blacklist did accomplish its purpose: to make ideas unsafe. To paraphrase Allen Ginsberg, the witch-hunt destroyed the political minds of a whole generation.
You would not know any of this from The Front which, like The Way We Were, treats 'the time of the toad' as safely tucked away in the historic past. In movies the blacklist is now as chic, as fashionable, as speakeasies and dancing the Charleston. The implication is, it couldn't happen here now. I wonder.
Before Christmas, lack of space prevented me from mentioning three new watchable films. From Richard Williams's witty opening titles to the slapstick finale of Peter Sellers doing a frantic striptease, The Pink Panther Strikes Again (Odeon Leicester Square, U certificate) is a solidly crafted comedy, enjoyable for all ages. The Enforcer (Warner West End 2, X certificate) is a come-down from the sleazy heights of Dirty Harry and Magnum Force. This time misogynistic Clint Eastwood gets lumbered with a woman partner after his buddy's death. But of course she pays for making Harry so sexually uncomfortable by dying at the end. As an homme fatal, Eastwood is in the Mata Hari class. Dick Lester's The Ritz (ABC Shaftesbury, X certificate) is good clean fun about a Mafia chase in a homosexual bathhouse.