Because of the blacklist, a number of artists, writers, directors and others were rendered unemployable, having been accused of subversive political activities in support of Communism or of being Communists themselves.
Several people involved in the making of the film – screenwriter Bernstein, director Ritt, and actors Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, and Lloyd Gough – had themselves been blacklisted. (The name of each in the closing credits is followed by "Blacklisted 19--" and the relevant year.) Bernstein was listed after being named in the Red Channels journal that identified alleged Communists and Communist sympathizers.
In New York City, 1953, at the height of McCarthyism and the political witch-hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee, television screenwriter Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) is blacklisted, and cannot get work. He asks his friend Howard Prince (Woody Allen), a restaurant cashier and small-time bookie, to sign his name to Miller's television scripts, in exchange for a percentage of the money Miller makes from them. Howard agrees out of friendship and because he needs the money. The scripts are submitted to network producer Phil Sussman (Herschel Bernardi), who is pleased to have a writer not contaminated by the television blacklist. Howard's script also offers a plum role for one of Sussman's top actors, Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel).
Howard becomes such a success that Miller's two fellow screenwriter friends hire him to be their front too. The quality of the scripts and Howard's ability to write so many impresses Sussman's idealistic script editor, Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci), who mistakes him for a principled artist. Howard begins dating her but changes the subject whenever she wants to discuss his work.
As investigators try to expose and blacklist Communists in the entertainment industry, Hecky Brown is fired from the show, because six years earlier, he marched in a May Day parade and subscribed to The Daily Worker, albeit merely to impress a woman he fancied. In order to clear his name from the blacklist, Hecky is instructed to find out more about Howard Prince's involvement with the Communist Party, so he invites him to the Catskills, where Hecky is booked to perform on stage. The club owner short-changes Hecky on his promised salary, and when Hecky confronts him, the club owner fires him, denouncing him as a "communist son of a bitch". The professional humiliation and the inability to provide for his wife and children take their toll, and, as a result, Hecky kills himself by jumping out of a hotel window.
Howard witnesses the harsh results of the right-wing Freedom Information Services. Suspicion is cast his way and he is called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He ends up revealing privately to Florence that he is not a brilliant writer at all, but just a humble cashier.
Howard decides that he will respond to the Committee's questions evasively, enabling him to neither admit nor deny anything. After briefly enduring the HUAC questioning – including being asked to speak ill of the dead Hecky Brown, and being threatened with legal consequences for his admission of having placed bets in his capacity as a bookie, Howard takes a stand, telling the Committee that he does not recognize their authority to ask him such questions, and telling them to “go fuck yourselves” before leaving the interrogation room.
Critical reception of The Front was divided between those who thought it effectively and amusingly dealt with the topic of McCarthyism and those who thought it a superficial gloss instead of a pithy statement about the McCarthy era. In 1976, reviewing it for The New York Times, Vincent Canby acknowledged the film's lack of direct political commentary: "The Front is not the whole story of an especially unpleasant piece of American history. It may be faulted for oversimplification. Mr. Ritt and Mr. Bernstein, veterans of the blacklist are not interested in subtleties. Yet, even in its comic moments, The Front works on the conscience. "It recreates the awful noise of ignorance that can still be heard." (Canby, 1976) Pauline Kael wrote in praise of the film and the performance of Woody Allen in particular: "At its most appealing, this movie says that people shouldn't be pressured to inform on their friends, that people shouldn't be humiliated in order to earn a living. Humbly, this film asks for fairness....When you see Woody Allen in one of his own films, in a peculiar way you take him for granted; here you appreciate his skill, because you miss him so much when he's offscreen."
Roger Ebert dismissed the political value of The Front: "What we get are the adventures of a schlemiel in wonderland". He felt that the Woody Allen character was too comic and unconvincing a writer to represent the true nature of "front" writers. He added that Hecky Brown was a worthwhile character: "The tragedy implied by this character tells us what we need to know about the blacklist's effect on people's lives; the rest of the movie adds almost nothing else".
For The Front, Walter Bernstein was nominated for the 1977 Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay and Zero Mostel was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor. Andrea Marcovicci was nominated for the 1977 "Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year – Actress".
The movie draws from real life incidents in its depiction of the characters. A scene in which Hecky (played by Mostel) goes to entertain at a mountain resort, and then is cheated out of part of his fee, is based on an incident described by Bernstein in his memoirs Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist. In the book, Bernstein describes how Mostel came to entertain at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills, where he used to entertain as a rising comic, because he desperately needed the money. The manager of the Concord promised him $500 but, when he arrived, reduced that to $250, according to Bernstein. In the movie, Hecky has a violent scene when, after the performance, he learns he has been cheated. In real life, Mostel was told before the performance and acted out his hostility during the performance by cursing at the customers, who thought it was part of the act.
Hecky's suicide by leaping from a hotel window has a historical parallel in the suicide of blacklisted actor Philip Loeb, who took an overdose of sleeping pills in a hotel room. Loeb was a friend of Mostel.