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The Front and Zero Mostel
Michael Chapman Film-maker
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Zero Mostel was one of the lead actors and he was severely blacklisted. It was a Woody Allen movie. It was about the only Woody Allen that Woody didn't direct; he acted in it and... and Marty Ritt directed it, and I think he did it... I think Woody did it because he felt quite strongly about the subject of the... of the blacklists and many of the other actors and people in it... Walter Bernstein is the writer – had been severely blacklisted – and it was, I think, the subject matter that made Woody allow... let himself be directed by somebody else, I guess. It's not a... it's seriously not a great movie, I guess, but it does at least deal with that subject, which as far as I know almost never was... never had been before and never has been since, pretty much, and I just fairly recently supervised the transfer of it to DVD for whatever... I can't remember what studio we did it for, you know, but anyway they were doing their stuff into DVD and I supervised that.

I hadn't looked at it in a long, long time and I realized that I had... and I remember doing this quite consciously – never mind any unconscious material or any nonsense like that – I... I lit it like a '50s television show deliberately, because that's what it was about – it was about '50s television and series, so I lit it with sort of hard light and... and hard shadows... I don't know if you... any of you are old enough to remember shadows across the wall at an angle with a cutter like this, and they were put there so that the people could put the microphone out when it would cross the shadow. Yeah…  [sic] in the shadow. It was entirely in order that the microphone be right the way out there and follow the people, so there was a stylistic mark of the period – of always a diagonal shadow across the wall that cut the keylight off and it was entirely so the microphone could get out there. So I lit it kind of that way and when I look at it again I realized that perhaps I shouldn't have done that, it seemed too self-conscious, but I did it anyway... what the hell, there's nothing... it's not the end of the world, and it was... it... like many movies it... it surprises you with what it is – what's good and what isn't – and what's amazing in it is not Woody Allen and not the story , which is okay but rather perfunctory in a kind of jokey way, but Zero Mostel's performance, and it was the last thing that he did and then he died, and it is absolutely extraordinary and heartbreaking, and it is entirely based on his own story. In fact, he pretty much acts out his own story: he was a big comic and then he is blacklisted and then he goes to a place in the Catskills, and they... they screw him out of his money, and it's just one thing after another, and it's very much his own story, and then he finally commits suicide by jumping out a window... he rents a room in a... in the... I forget, the Ritz or some big hotel in New York, and he orders champagne and he drinks champagne and jumps out the window.

And Marty Ritt didn't really care... or didn't seem to in this case, much care about set ups or coverage or anything, and wanted to talk to the actors. He had been an actor, and I guess that was his style as a director; I never had worked with him before, so I pretty much laid out the shots and did that stuff which is fine, I'm very happy to, and Zero and I worked out this last sequence in one shot and it really is quite wonderful – I'm very proud of it, and... and it was as much Zero Mostel as me, but we worked out the whole thing where he comes into the hotel room and he tips the man and then he puts his luggage down, or whatever he does, I forget, and then a man comes in and he's ordered a bottle of champagne and he pays the man and you... you follow him from room to room and he opens the champagne and he pours a glass, and you follow him, and you don't quite know what he's doing, but it gets more and more strange and ominous, and then I forget exactly how I did it – I have to look at it again – but at some point you pan to where he puts the champagne down and you hold on the champagne and then... you're holding on the champagne, and then there's this sort of puff of wind and a curtain blows into the frame and you pan over to the curtain, and it's an open window, and he's jumped, and it's all in one shot, and it’s marvelous kind of silent movie storytelling, and it's utterly, perfectly successful, and it's like a ballet, and it's a ballet because Zero Mostel had this marvelous physical... physicality that really great comics often have and he just did everything as if it was... as if it was a dance, you know, and it's really quite a wonderful sequence, and I'm very proud of it and... and Zero Mostel certainly was very proud of it – I don't want to speak for him, but I'm sure he was. And it's... it and the rest of his performance are what jump out of the movie out of a perfectly well-intentioned and... and good-hearted and right, politically correct movie, but Zero's performance and his whole part just jumps out of the movie into something else, and it's one of those examples of a movie tricking itself into doing something quite extraordinary that it didn't know it was going to do, and it's entirely Zero Mostel.

The other nice thing is that at the end of the movie there is list of everybody who is blacklisted – Marty Ritt blacklisted so and so, Walter Bernstein blacklisted so and so; a series of actors and other people who were involved in it, all of whom are Lloyd Goth or something whatever, 'blacklisted 1952 by...' And then they put my name, Michael Chapman, cameraman, and they said, 'Now, Michael, we don't want you to feel bad; we promise you, you would have been blacklisted too – you were just too young and you just didn't have a chance – so we put you right afterwards, so you won't feel bad, because I don't want you to feel hurt', and I wasn't. I felt justified and vindicated and I certainly would have been; I was just too young.

Michael Chapman, an American cinematographer, has had a huge influence on contemporary film-making, working on an impressive array of classic films including 'Taxi Driver', 'Raging Bull', 'The Lost Boys' and 'The Fugitive'.

Listeners: Glen Ade Brown

British Director of Photography and Camera Operator Glen Ade Brown settled in Los Angeles 10 years ago.

He has been working on features, commercials and reality TV. He played an instrumental role in the award-winning ABC Family series "Switched" and is also a recipient of the Telly and the Cine Golden Eagle awards for Best Cinematography. He was recently signed by the Judy Marks Agency and is now listed in her commercial roster.

Tags: The Front, 1950's, Zero Mostel, Woody Allen, Martin Ritt, Walter Bernstein, Lloyd Goth

Duration: 5 minutes, 45 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008