Released in the patriotic bicentennial year of 1976, this straightforward/single-minded anti-cautionary tale about the ‘Hollywood’ Blacklist of the 1950s (East Coast division) boasts a handful of real-life victims in director (Martin Ritt), scripter (Walter Bernstein) and cast members (like Zero Mostel & Herschel Bernardi), but is mainly the story of a schlemiel who becomes a mensch (Woody Allen in a rare outside gig). Cashier & small-time bookie, he’s approached by old school pal Michael Murphy, a recently blacklisted tv writer, to act as his ‘front’ at the network. Allen gets a commission, a literary rep, a sophisticated girlfriend, and a bit of a swelled head out of the deal, then winds up ‘fronting’ for a trio of writers before finding he too has been caught up in the witch-hunting vortex. The scope of the film is probably too narrow to do justice to the personal compromises of the period (though it doesn’t cop out on the victims’ political sympathies), but it also neither oversells its small noble gestures nor condemns the weak. (A bit more rhythm in Ritt’s helming wouldn’t have hurt.) And Bernstein comes up with a sweet, ironic finale that’s graceful & succinct; lit from the outside by Michael Chapman’s fine, period lensing style, and from the inside by a great Frank Sinatra tune.
DOUBLE-BILL: The recent TRUMBO/’15 (not seen here) works the same subject out on the West Coast. For a real look at the issue, try YOO-HOO, MRS. GOLDBERG/’09, about the rise and fall of tv’s remarkable Gertrude Berg.
READ ALL ABOUT IT: Though not without moments of self-glorification, Lillian Hellman’s SCOUNDREL TIME covers this ground pretty well.