Director: Martin Ritt
Written by: Walter Bernstein
Starring: Woody Allen, Zero Mostel, Michael Murphy, Andrea Marcovicci
Duration: 95 mins
This Powerhouse films release covers a cross-section of interests: Woody Allen, with his ready-built fanbase; McCarthy-era America, with its ready-built conspiracy theorists and moral outrage; and a pertinent commentary on current US politics, with its ready-built outrage mechanism.
The story covers the blacklisting era in the US TV and film industry, which was mostly the early 1950s. Whilst not a true story, it takes events and personal experiences to weave a story with a lesson.
Woody Allen plays Howard Prince, who agrees to put his name to TV scripts actually written by blacklisted writers. Initially this is clearly set up with a financial motivation, as his character is portrayed as a profligate borrower – and an illegal bookmaker. Unsurprisingly, Allen’s character is a bit of a wise-cracker, but, while he is effective in the role, he is certainly upstaged here by Zero Mostel.
Mostel plays a much-loved entertainer, who is persecuted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He brings a mixture of chutzpah – when in entertainer mode – and pathos, when he is dealing with the real world, that is clearly underpinned by the fact that he was blacklisted himself. In the extras, Michael Chapman reveals that some of the scenes were based on things that actually befell the actor.
Interestingly, Chapman also seems to imply that he doesn’t see the film as a great success. And, indeed, some of the story-telling seems a little perfunctory. But the central theme of a hysterical government perpetuating communist conspiracy theories, and subsequently using unpleasant people to execute a persecution strategy still holds a clout. The theme seems doubly relevant now, when taking into account the way the US appears to be heading in 2017.
Mostel’s character well reflects the self-centredness of celebrity in his scenes with the authorities – and the neediness of the comedic performer too. This film was one of his final roles – and his final scene in the film (no spoilers) is a tremendous legacy to leave. This is discussed at some length in the extras by Michael Chapman.
In further echoes of a panicky 21st America, although the target of the panic may have changed, are these words from one of the investigators: ‘We are in a war against a ruthless and tricky enemy that will stop at nothing to destroy our way of life.’ Sounds familiar, eh?
As the film inevitably leads to the Front’s clash with dictatorial authority, the issue of personal responsibility takes centre stage. Allen is told by a colleague, when discussing a strategy for dealing with the House Un-American Activities Committee’s panel: ‘You're always looking for a middle you can dance around. Well there's no dancing around this time.’
As a film in the round, perhaps Chapman is right about its occasional perfunctory nature – the love interest Allen has seems slightly out of kilter (although Andrea Marcovicci was nominated for a newcomer award); and some of the government officials seem a bit one-dimensional.
Yet the messages: standing for what you believe; having and/or developing personal ethics; taking a side and so on are, well put across. It made me want to know more.
And the kicker? The credits show that many of those involved had personal experience of the blacklist. The film comes from the right place.
- Interview with director of photography Michael Chapman
- Audio commentary by Andrea Marcovicci
- Image Gallery
- Theatrical Trailer