“The left has no blacklist.”

— Zero Mostel

You are about to enjoy a movie in which almost everyone was once a blacklisted actor, writer or director. There is so much background about this great little movie that it took a library of books to cover it.

The boogie man hiding in the closet and under the bed during the period played out here was the House Un-American Activities Committee. Don’t get me started on that, because, full disclosure, this actor and writer as a young man in New York and Hollywood knew many of those whose lives were destroyed by that monster. I worked with and for some in television, and they were generous and eager to tell their stories once the pogrom was over.

“The Front,” starring Woody Allen and Michael Murphy, was directed in 1976 by Martin Ritt, one of New York and Hollywood’s great directors. Ritt, one of that Elia Kazan gang, directed “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” in 1965 and the wonderful union film “Norma Rae” in 1979. Ritt was one of the victims of HUAC.

But here, in a script written by blacklisted Walter Bernstein, who wrote the great 1964 “Fail Safe” starring Henry Fonda, a sample of one of the stories of the time is played out.

In the beginning of this funny and sad carnival of masks, we get to meet Howard Prince, (Woody Allen in a rare straight role) obviously an assumed name, who lives life as a “part timer.” Howard works part time as a cashier in a bar and part time as a nickel-and-dime bookie. Even his relationships with women are “part time.”

One day an old school chum, Alfred (Michael Murphy), now a well-known and successful television writer, walks in and asks a favor. It seems that Alfred has been blacklisted for some vague associations with old leftist friends. The favor? Will Howard pretend to be a writer and sell Alfred’s scripts under his own name?

Howard agrees. What could go wrong? He will get 10 percent of the sale and make a few bucks. It begins.

Before long, the new “Howard Prince” gets a name, a reputation and a swollen ego.

He agrees to take on other writers and soon is a hot property and becomes the darling of big-time producer Phil Sussman (blacklisted Herschel Bernardi).

Howard falls in love with production assistant Florence (Andrea Marcovicci), who thinks of him as the new Arthur Miller. What could go wrong with that?

In time, Howard is masking for five or six writers and soon falls under the suspicious gaze of red-baiting Marvin Lichterman (Myer Prince).

Howard’s fall from grace begins when he befriends a once-famous comedian, Hecky Brown (the magnificent Zero Mostel), whose career on a hit television sitcom is being destroyed by HUAC. This is the dark cloud that falls suddenly over the — until now — semi-humorous movie. When tragedy falls like a blood red velvet curtain over creative America, Howard discovers a conscience he never knew existed.

He is called before a subcommittee and asked to give the names of those he is suspected of fronting. That scene, and one moment as he watches a funeral, shows a part of Allen we always knew was buried under the trembling, stuttering pile of schticks he used to become “Woody.”

All involved here — Lloyd Gough; the now-deceased comic Joshua Shelley; and Norman Rose, he of the greatest voice in the business — are outstanding.

And of course, Murphy, this year’s Maine International Film Festival guest of honor, once again displays that everyman quality that became his brand. It’s that quality in his scenes with Allen, both here and in “Manhattan,” that is so “real guy” it compels actor Allen to match him.

“The Front,” while not one of Allen’s hits, is important today because it reminds us that the rats that prowled our political streets in the ’50s are prowling again.

A coda: In the credit crawls, the people involved with the film who were blacklisted are listed with the year they were so named. Touching. “The Front” is one of the important and entertaining films of this year’s festival.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

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