Written by the blacklisted Walter Bernstein and directed by blacklisted Martin Ritt, a cashier who is also a bookie is hired by three blacklisted writers as a front to sell their scripts using his name.
While Frank Sinatra is heard singing “Young at Heart,” newsreels include Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Rosenbergs in the 1950s.
Howard Prince (Woody Allen) is working as a cashier in a bar, and Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) drops in to see his friend. Howard introduces him to Margo the waitress. Alfred asks him to take a walk, and Margo takes over the register for Howard who is also a bookie and takes a bet from the bartender.
Howard is playing chess with Alfred who says he can’t work anymore because he is blacklisted. Howard wants to know if he has writer’s block and asks if he is healthy and feels all right. Alfred says he feels terrible because he can’t sell his scripts since he is on the blacklist. Howard asks why he was blacklisted, and Alfred says he is a Communist sympathizer. Howard says he always was. Alfred says it is no longer popular. Howard tells him to take care of number one and asks if he can sue. Alfred says no one admits that the blacklist exists. Howard says he knows people who break legs, but Alfred does not want them. Howard offers him money, but Alfred says he needs another name. Howard suggests a name, but Alfred says pseudonyms don’t work because they know they are changing their names. He needs a real person. Howard gets the idea and wants him to ask. He asks Alfred when they start. Alfred explains how it works. After he sends in the scripts, Howard will have to go in to meet with them.
As they walk outside, Alfred tells Howard that he will pay him ten percent and that he usually gets about $1,000. Howard tells him to write.
At a fruit stand Danny LaGattuta (Danny Aiello) tells Howard that he wants his winnings and asks if he thinks he is a charity. Howard says his money is coming. Danny warns him not to make him mad.
Howard asks Myer Prince (Marvin Lichterman) at his clothing factory if he can borrow $600, but Myer loans him only $400. He advises Howard to save his money and get a better job.
At home Howard answers the phone and says he is Howard Prince the writer. He says he can meet in the daytime and makes an appointment for Tuesday.
At a studio Howard asks for Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci) who is talking with Phil Sussman (Herschel Bernardi) their producer. Phil says he likes his script and wonders where he came from. Florence introduces the actors Steve Parks and Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel) who is the narrator for the show. They like the script, Phil tells Howard that the script is too long, but Florence and Phil have different ideas of what should be cut. Howard tries to avoid answering which he will cut. Phil tells him to decide, and he needs it in the morning. Phil walks away, and Florence says his script has substance about people.
A woman answers the phone for a freedom information service and connects Hampton (Scott McKay) from the network to Hennessey (Remak Ramsay) at his desk. He writes down the name Howard Prince, asks for his social security number, and says he will check him out. He says that Hecky is there now, and he hangs up. Hecky tells Hennessey that he will do anything; but Hennessey wants to know what he had done. Hecky says nothing; he is an actor. Hecky admits that six years ago he marched in a May Day parade. He bought a subscription to the Daily Worker, but he claims he never read it. He says he was trying to lay a Communist girl. Hennessey asks why he signed a petition for Loyalist Spain and for War Relief. Hecky asks if they were on the same side. He says the girl was the reason. Hecky says he will say anything, but Hennessey says it has to come from his heart. Hecky says his life is acting and asks what he knows about politics. Hennessey tells him to write him a letter of how he was duped and how he feels about it now. He wants to know who else was involved in those activities. Hecky says it was a long time ago. Hennessey wants him to repent sincerely, and Hecky says he does. Hecky tries to make a joke by saying he didn’t even get laid.
At the studio in the control room Phil and Florence are watching as the director gives instructions, and they begin broadcasting the show. Hecky is introducing the story.
At home Alfred is watching the television show. The introduction is over, and the story begins.
A family at dinner is watching the show.
After the show ends, Florence answers the phone in Studio 12. They get two positive phone calls right away, and Phil says they have a winner.
As the credit for the teleplay by Howard Prince rolls, those in the bar cheer.
Howard is dining in a nice restaurant with Florence who tells him that she is involved. He realizes she is a one guy at a time person. She says he is a stockbroker. He asks if she saw his new script, and she says it is marvelous. She is excited about meeting new talent. She asks why he started writing so late. He says he had to get experience in life first. She asks if he is from the city, and he says he bummed around a lot. He asks about her, and she says she is from Connecticut. She says the biggest sin was to raise your voice. He asks if she and the stockbroker laugh a lot. They look at the menu, and she says he writes well about the girl in his script. Howard asks her to go out with him tomorrow night, but she says she is not ready but laughs.
At a bookstore Howard buys two books by Hemingway, a Faulkner, a Dostoyevsky, and The Diary of a Writer.
At home on the phone Howard is trying to put off paying Danny. He says long shots came in like relatives. He asks why he is mad and tells him to trust him.
Howard is asking for money from Myer again. He says he sold another script, but Myer tells him first he has to pay back what he owes.
Howard visits Alfred who says it was a tough one. Howard asks how the other blacklisted writers get along. He says he could do two or three writers. Alfred laughs and tells him to cut the crap, saying he wants the money. Alfred warns him about what he may do when he gets the money.
In a restaurant Howard and Alfred are meeting with Herb Delaney (Lloyd Gough) and Bill Phelps (David Margulies). Alfred says Howard pays them after taking out ten percent. Herb asks what he is paying them for, and Bill says the IRS may get them. Alfred asks why they are worried about taxes, but Alfred tells Howard they are worried about him. Howard says he will take care of his end.
Howard is walking on the street and pays Danny the $300 he owes him.
In a dining-room Uncle Howard gives gifts to a boy, a girl, and a woman and then hands a check to the man.
In a hallway Harry Stone is telling Hennessey that a terrible mistake was made. He is the actor, but they want the producer Harry Stone. He says he is blacklisted because they think he is the producer. Hennessey says he can only help people who have made a clean break with what they have done. Stone says he has not done anything. Hennessey says that is why he can’t help him, and he goes into his office and closes the door in Stone’s face.
Hennessey at his desk takes a call from Hampton at the network. He says he has a report on Howard Prince and has no proof he was a member of the party. He will continue to investigate, and he says there is nothing to object to so far.
Phil is in Hampton’s office, and Phil says Howard is the only writer he has. Phil asks about Hecky Brown, and Hampton says his letter was not good enough. Phil asks him what he should tell him. Hampton tells him to fire him.
Outside Florence wants to talk about the scripts with Howard who says you are either a writer or a talker. He asks if she likes sports. She likes swimming, but he says that is not a game with a ball. She says she used to play basketball, and he asks if she wants to play one on one. He says he is not just a writer. She says she does not have to know anything more and kisses him.
On the street a writer passes a large envelope to Howard as they pass each other.
Phil is reading the script, laughs, and tells Florence and Howard that it is good.
Howard is in a bank, and the teller says he never saw an account go up and down so fast. He asks him what he does, and Howard says he is in futures.
Howard is being fitted for a new suit.
In a furniture store a man shows Howard around.
On the street Delaney comes out of a building, and two men get out of a car and tell him they are from the FBI, but he declines to talk to them and walks away. A man says they will see him again. On the street he sees Howard and tells him to keep walking. They pass each other without exchanging the envelope.
Howard gets out of a cab with an envelope, and he delivers it to the studio office. Phil tells him he has to re-write the script they are doing now. The sponsor wants him to rewrite the concentration camp scene, and Phil says he has to do it right now. He and Florence take him into an empty office. Phil tells him to write and goes out. Florence watches him put paper in the typewriter. Phil comes back in and takes her out.
Later Phil and Florence find Howard talking in a phone booth. From the window in his little office Howard sees a taxi below with Alfred waving the envelope from the window. Howard goes out to get it.
In a school auditorium a man introduces Howard as a famous television writer.
In the makeup room Phil tells Hecky that he is worried because his character is not right. Florence says she likes Hecky. Phil says he is too dominant and tells Heck he needs his own show. Hecky asks if it is the letter and says he wrote what he wanted. Florence gets upset and goes out.
Howard is being interviewed on television, Hecky is watching it in a bar. A woman says hello to Hecky, but the man with her leads her away from him.
Hecky tells Hennessey that he wrote what he wanted. He asks what else he can do. Hennessey says he is not being frank. He asks the name of the girl that made him want to march in the parade. Hennessey says he knows some of those who marched in the parade. Hecky says he apologized, and he begs him that he only wants to work so that he can support his wife and children. He says he can’t pay the rent. Hennessey asks if he knows Howard Prince, and Hecky says he knows him from the show. Hennessey asks if he can get to know him better. Hennessey wants to know who his friends are and how he stands on the issues of the day. Hennessey says they cannot ask him because he would lie. Hennessey says they are in a war and that to spy for freedom is an honor. Hecky asks if he spies on Howard, could he work. Hennessey says it would help, and Hecky laughs.
Howard answers his door. Florence comes in and kisses him. She says she quit because she will not be part of the dirty work that is crucifying Hecky. Howard is surprised. She says she felt like a hypocrite because they count on our silence. She says she is going to put together facts about blacklisting for a pamphlet. She has been calling people and says people want to talk as long as their names are not used. She says she will do the leg work, and he can do the writing. He says she is making a big mistake. He says she is throwing away her career as a script editor. He says she could be a producer. She says she would have to keep her mouth shut. He tells her to sit down and says she is going off the deep end. He gets her some champagne while she says she is serious. He says she is starting a revolution. She says she wants to fight them and not get bought off. He says he is not mad at anyone. She says he lives in the world; but he says she does while he lives there. He says for the first time in his life he has what he wants. She does not want to take it away from him, but he says that will happen. She asks him for a simple commitment and puts her hand on his cheek. He says they have a terrific relationship and asks why she wants to spoil it. She says there are more important things than sex. He pretends to agree and asks like what. She says human rights, and he laughs. He asks about his rights and says she is putting him on the spot. She says he wants success. He does not want to look for trouble. She says a writer looks for trouble, but he says only a lunatic does that. He says she is crazy. He wants her to tell Phil that she made a mistake. She says she knows when she makes a mistake. Before this she has confused the artist with the man. She gets up and goes out.
Howard is driving and talking with Hecky who asks if he has a lot of friends. Hecky asks what he likes to do in his spare time. Hecky warns him about broads coming at him from all directions. Hecky says he used to get $3,000 a night at these places, but tonight he is getting only $500. He asks Howard if he has friends in the same position.
They arrive at the resort, and Hecky introduces Howard as a writer. Inside Howard asks a blonde woman if she is staying long. When she learns he is a writer, she walks away.
In an office Hecky is meeting with Sam (Joshua Shelley) while Howard stands by. Sam tells Hecky that he can only pay him $250 because the unions can shut him down. Hecky says he can’t get him for $250, and Sam offers him $300. Sam says there is a cloud over his head, and he advises him to take the $250.
Hecky entertains on stage in front of an orchestra singing “Anything for a Laugh.” People applaud and stand up. When he goes off, Howard says he was great.
Later Hecky is drinking at a table and tells women his room number. A pretty woman asks Howard what he does, and he says he is a dentist. She says her name is Sandy, and he tells her he is Herman. She asks if he is attached, and he says only to his work. Sam gives Hecky an envelope, and he finds only $250 in it while Sam says he is one of the all-time greats. Heck tries to get Sam to give him something out of his pocket. Hecky gets angry and shouts, “Blood.” Sam orders men to get him out of there. He calls Hecky a “fat pig” and says he will never work again.
Howard with Hecky comes into his apartment, and Howard tells him he can sleep on his couch. Hecky is complaining about Herschel Brownstein and shouts. He tells Howard that talent is no protection. Hecky likes the apartment and says Howard would like to keep it. Howard suggests they call Hecky’s wife. Hecky asks Howard who he sees and who signed the petitions. He asks him about his friend Florence and says she is a red. Howard tells him to stop that game he does not like.
Hecky is sleeping on the sofa. Later he is looking for things in Howard’s desk.
At a party Howard sees a pretty blonde. Howard talks about modern American fiction. Phil says he was expecting the show to go from a half hour to an hour. He says if you have the talent, you have the quality. Hampton introduces Hubert Jackson who is upset about some of the actors. Hampton says they take every precaution. Jackson says if people think a company is sponsoring reds, they don’t buy that product. Howard asks him how they know, and Jackson says that he tells them. Hampton asks Phil to send Hubert a list of the actors he plans to use, and Phil agrees to do so. Hampton tells Hubert they will get cooperation from him. Howard asks Phil how many stores Hubert has, and he says three or four. Howard is surprised that he can tell them who to hire.
Howard gets some money from his bank and is followed by a man in an overcoat.
At lunch Howard gives checks to Herb and Bill, but he tells Alfred that his script was late. Howard gives a script back to Phelps and tells him it needs a rewrite. Howard says he did not show it to them because it was not ready. Alfred asks what he means. Howard says he can’t turn in anything because he has a reputation to uphold. Howard says that going to an hour may be putting too much pressure on them. He has been noticing that the stuff has been thin lately. He would like things like Eugene O’Neill but with laughs. Phelps asks the subject, and Howard says it is a woman reporter. Howard says blacklisted is not enough. The waiter brings their food, and Alfred says he is going to kill Howard.
Howard goes in the bookstore and tells Florence he has been calling her for three weeks. She says they do not think alike or believe in the same things. He says he hates the blacklist. He says she sees trouble, but he does not want to get killed. He asks if they have to break up over that, and she says maybe they do. She says he thinks she is going to make him lose everything. He says he needs more time. He wants to go to the basketball game, but she has tickets for the concert. He suggests they give up their tickets to both and have dinner. They say they miss each other and agree on the date.
In Phil’s office Howard asks him why he was given a subpoena to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Phil says they found out upstairs. Howard says he is not a Communist. Phil says he has to tell them that. If he does not do it, he does not work. Howard says he did not believe Florence when she told him about him. Howard knows it was hard for him to fire Hecky. Phil says he had a headache for a week. Howard says it only takes one guy to say no to them, and he can be that guy. Howard says Phil is respected and has a big name. He asks him to take a stand. Phil calls Hampton on the phone and says there is no reason for Howard to go to that committee. He says what they should tell them. Then he listens and tells Howard he has to go.
Howard’s attorney in a meeting with Hennessey and the man who followed Howard tells Howard that they have dealt with the committee before. He asks Howard about his friend Alfred Miller, and he says they never talk about politics. The attorney also asks about Delaney and Phelps, and Howard says they are friends of Alfred. The attorney asks about the girl Florence, and he says it is just sex. Hennessey asks if that is why he gave money to her pro-Communist publication. Howard says they were going out. Howard says he did not know what it was about. Hennessey says that is not credible, but the attorney tells him that they can handle the legal end. Hennessey and the other man get up and go out. The attorney sits down next to Howard and tells him it will be an executive session with no reporters or publicity. He does not have to go to Washington because they will send a subcommittee here. Sam says they will write him a strong anti-Communist statement to go with his testimony. He says all they want is a friendly witness. Howard agrees to be a friendly witness.
Howard takes a fern in a pot to Alfred who is in a hospital bed. Howard tells him not to worry about his ulcer. Delaney and Phelps are there too. Delaney says they have a good writer to help out who was blacklisted by his brother-in-law. A nurse comes in and tells them that visiting hours are over. Howard says he is a doctor. Alfred asks Howard why they want him to testify and name names. Alfred says they don’t care about names; they care only about making people give names. Howard says he is using them so that they can keep the work. Phelps asks why he can’t give them their names because they already have them. Howard says they want publicity. Delaney says he should take the fifth amendment; but Phelps says they will blacklist him if he does that. Howard asks what the fifth is and asks why he has to take anything. Delaney explains that they might ask him questions he does not want to answer. If he answers one, he may have to answer the others; if he refuses he could be cited for contempt. Delaney says he can’t trust the network; he should take the fifth. Howard says he does not want to, but Alfred tells him not to cooperate. Howard tells him not to be a loser his whole life, and Alfred tells him to quit looking for an out. The nurse comes back in, and Howard gives Alfred some milk to drink. She goes out. Alfred tells Howard he saved their ass. Howard says he will do it again if he cooperates. Howard says if he tells the committee to shove it, then none of them will work. Alfred says he will worry about that. Phelps asks if they can make Howard do what he does not believe in. Alfred says that whatever Howard does he is doing for himself.
Hecky knocks and comes in and tells them it is a raid. He understands they have a girl in their room; if not, why not? Howard says Hecky scared him. Hecky says he was in the neighborhood. He asks Howard if he is disturbing him. Howard puts his hand on his shoulder. Hecky apologizes to Howard for having given him a hard time. Hecky says it is not bad. He says his wife found a job, and his kids are eating. They give him a drink, and Hecky says he never learned how to sip a drink because of how his father drank. Howard says things are going well for him. Hecky asks Howard if he knew Johnny Parker the actor who was blacklisted. He says he owned a little farm and went back to it. He says they struck oil on his property, and now he is a millionaire. Hecky says he apologized, and it is time to go. Howard says he will call him. Hecky makes a joke about how many times people said they would call him. He tells Howard to take care of himself because the world is full of sharks, and he goes out.
Hecky goes into a hotel room and tips the employee. He hears a knock and lets in a waiter with his dinner. He tips him as he goes out. He pours some wine and drinks it down. He holds the bottle and looks at himself in the mirror. He drinks out of the bottle and then goes out the open window from a high floor.
Hecky’s family and others go to the funeral as Howard watches. The FBI agent is taking pictures of those attending.
Florence answers the door and lets in Howard. They embrace, and she says she was worried about him. He sits down and says he was thinking about things. She says she saved his dinner, but he asks for just a drink. He says he saw her at the funeral, but she did not see him. He says he could not handle it. She hands him the drink and says he is lucky he is a writer, not an actor. She asks what an actor can do if he can’t show his face. He asks her what she would say if he was not a writer. She knows he is and loves him. He says he is not a writer. Other people wrote the scripts and he put his name on them. He says he fronts for blacklisted writers. He says he is practically illiterate. She is shocked, and he offers to get her a drink. He says he did not like lying to her. She says he is like a complete stranger. He says he was sworn to secrecy. He says she was in love with a writer and says she is hysterical. She asks when he was going to tell her. She asks what he is. He says he was a cashier. She says he is not being fair. He asks her to give him a chance, and she asks who he is. He says it is not easy being in love with her. She is looking for a knight on a horse, and he is not that. He says she will find out what he is after he testifies to the committee. She says they are dangerous and that he can’t fool around. He says he can beat them in his own way. He will not do anything that will make her ashamed of him.
Howard’s attorney introduces Howard and says his network will never tolerate Communist propaganda. The chairman (Josef Sommer) says they are there to keep America as pure as they can. The lawyer (Charles Kimbrough) for the committee questions Howard. He asks if he knows Alfred Miller, and Howard asks why. The chairman says he has nothing to worry about if he tells the truth. Howard asks if he really knows him. The lawyer asks if he met him several times in a restaurant. Howard is avoiding answering, and his attorney asks what he is doing. He warns Howard he is getting them mad. Howard says busloads of Communists are coming over the border. He says they only send people to military school if they are bad. The lawyer asks if he knows Phelps, Delaney, Florence, or Herschel Brownstein known as Hecky. Howard says he is dead. The lawyer asks if he knows him. The chairman consults with the lawyer and tells him to nail him on something. The lawyer asks Howard if he knows Patrick Callahan at the bar or Danny and whether he placed bets with them. Howard admits he did, and the lawyer says that is a crime. The attorney confirms that with Howard and consults with the chairman. His attorney tells Howard he only has to give them one name. He suggests he give them Hecky since he is dead. The lawyer asks if he knew Brownstein or Hecky Brown. He asks if he is refusing to answer. Howard stands up and says he does not recognize the right of this committee to ask him questions. He walks to the door and says, “Furthermore you can all go fuck yourselves.” He walks out as Sinatra sings “Fairy tales can come true.”
Howard and Florence are kissing, but he is handcuffed to a man. Phelps, Delaney, and Alfred say goodbye to him. People are demonstrating with signs in support of a true hero.
In addition to the writer and director of this film, four of the actors were also blacklisted in the early 1950s. This film handles a dark subject with humor yet still exposes the cruel methods of McCarthyism and especially how they affected the lives of people in show business.