American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Martin Ritt's "The Front" is the victim of its own publicity. For months, we've been promised this serious film treatment of McCarthyism and the show business blacklists of the early 1950s. We've heard about Woody Allen in his first serious role, and about how the film's director, its author and two of its stars were themselves blacklisted. We expected an indictment of a shameful chapter in American history.
What we get are the adventures of a schlemiel in wonderland. Now those in themselves wouldn't make a bad movie, and "The Front" has its moments. But they often seem to be moments from a Woody Allen movie -- scenes where the insecure Allen character tries to appear competent and win the girl who's taller than he is, all at once. If "The Front" had simply settled for being that kind of movie, we could relax and enjoy it. But it keeps pushing for a larger statement, and since the issues involved are totally outside the comprehension of the central character, the movie falls apart.
Allen plays a New York delicatessen clerk whose highest ambition, early in the film, seems to be keeping his fingers out of the meat slicer. He's approached by an old neighborhood buddy with a problem. The buddy is a Communist sympathizer, and has been blacklisted; suddenly it's impossible for him to sell scripts to television. The buddy makes a proposal: He'll write the scripts and Woody can front for him, pretending to be the real author.
Woody agrees to the idea, and at that moment, the screenplay takes the wrong turn. Instead of dealing with the blacklist, it deals with Allen. When Woody walks into a studio with a script under his arm, the movie becomes the story of his personal rise and fall. On this level, "The Front" is actually fairly successful -- but didn't Ritt and his writer, Walter Bernstein, see they'd abandoned the theme they chose themselves? Everyone connected with the movie seems to be under the delusion it's an attack on the blacklist; instead of playing it at a benefit for the American Civil Liberties Union (as they did) they should have held a sneak preview for delicatessen clerks.
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