[9 July 2008]
Arguably, Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence (1961) is one of the very best film noirs in cinema history. As most movie fans know, film noir is the cinematic genre that encompasses dark and gritty crime movies that emphasize the moral ambiguity and sexual abandon of its troubled characters. Featuring low key lighting in dramatic black and white cinematography, film noirs have a visual style reminiscent of the expressionistic films made in Germany during the ‘20s. Also, these flicks are characterized by their hardboiled storylines presented with an engrossing first-person voiceover narration.
Cinema historians have determined that the golden era of film noir began right after the World War II years, during the mid -40s, and lasted until the late ‘50s. Thus, Blast of Silence was released right when the genre was in sharp decline in popular culture. Arguably, such bad timing may be the reason as to why this film, a true masterpiece of visual and narrative style, has remained in undeserved obscurity for nearly five decades.
The narrative of Blast of Silence neatly conforms to the traditions of film noir. As the flick begins we are introduced to Frankie Bono, a professional assassin from Cleveland played with bravura by Baron himself. He arrives in New York during the Christmas season with a contract to execute Troiano (Peter H. Clune), a low key mafia boss. Waiting for an opportunity to kill his target, Frankie meets an old school flame, Lorrie (Molly McCarthy). As the sexual tension rises, Frankie questions the meaning of his criminal life.
But nevertheless, Blast of Silence substantially deviates from the standard template that characterizes the golden era of the film noir. Perhaps the most telling difference is its voiceover narration, which was recorded in the second person. Blast of Silence features the poignant voice of Lionel Stander, although his name does not appear on the credits because at the time of the filming he was a blacklisted actor. Without a doubt, his affecting voiceover is one of the many highlights of Blast of Silence.
The narration itself was written by Waldo Salt, another blacklisted artist working under the Mel Davenport pseudonym. By combining sobriety and detachment, and unusually performed in the second person, the voiceover almost feels as if it comes from an angry archangel or another powerful supernatural entity. The content of the voiceover feels angry, bleak, and depressing, significantly stressing the hopeless and unredeemable nature of Frankie.
Arguably, Salt and Stander provided a unique and inimitable contribution to Blast of Silence because the voiceover deeply resonated with their professional stigma. That is, Blast of Silence’s voiceover narration smartly reflects the sentiments and attitudes probably felt by both blacklisted artists. Just consider how this film is about a lonely outsider and his uncontrollable feelings of alienation, hostility, paranoia, reprisal, and xenophobia. As such, the entire movie is permeated with an almost unbearable sense of nihilism and fatalism.
Furthermore, Baron and cinematographer Merrill Brody knew very well how to shoot New York City to make the streets and buildings look menacing and dangerous, even during the jolly Christmas season. Clearly, Baron’s cinematic vision as a director granted Blast of Silence a superb mise en scène that features deserted streets in the early morning hours, which greatly amplifies the loneliness and perdition of Frankie. Christmas time in New York never has looked this bleak.
In this regard it is perhaps ironic that Baron, who managed to gather about $20,000US to make the movie in his place of residence, ended up with a flick that appears to have a much larger production values. Just consider, back in the day very few films were made in the Big Apple because of the large costs associated with shooting away from the Hollywood studios. Furthermore, according to acclaimed director Martin Scorsese, Blast of Silence has to be considered a quintessential New York film.
Indeed, the cinematography of Blast of Silence is so outstanding that it turns New York City into a character rather than a mere location. Even though Blast of Silence was Baron’s first movie, his professional background as a comic book illustrator gave him a firm understanding of visual concepts such as framing and composition. The result was a series of truly breathtaking shots. Consider, for instance, the long shot of Frankie walking down the street towards the camera with the skyline of the buildings off to the sides, which feels as menacing as it does inspiring.
Baron as an actor is superb. As the story goes, Peter Falk was originally hired in the role of Frankie, but at the very last minute he changed his mind and went to work on Murder Inc. (Burt Balaban, 1960). Out of necessity, Baron was forced to play Frankie. Ironically, his acting inexperience actually helped to improve the look of the movie, as Baron’s natural uneasiness and disaffection in front of the camera only enhanced the portrayal of the troubled and alienated Frankie.
Considering the brave and elegant aesthetics of Blast of Silence, one is left perplexed at the subsequent filmmaking career of Baron. Indeed, Baron went on to direct dozens of forgettable episodes for TV series such as Charlie’s Angels and The Dukes of Hazzard. If anything, his best work during the 1970s was the four episodes he made for Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Talk about an abysmal waste of talent. On the other hand, Salt earned well-deserved Academy Awards for Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969) and Coming Home (Hal Ashby, 1978).
Long unavailable on home video, Blast of Silence is now being offered on DVD as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection. As expected of a Criterion presentation, the film is shown in pristine audio and image quality. A couple of interesting extra features are included which tell the engrossing story of its genesis. The most important of these is the hour long “Requiem for a Killer”, where Baron himself explains the hurdles of independent filmmaking while visiting the original locations used in his brilliant film.
Featuring an awesome monochromatic cinematography and a dramatic narrative, Blast of Silence is a true film noir classic that deserves to be rediscovered by modern audiences. In this regard, it is perhaps an irony that this film was produced too late to be within the golden era of film noir, and years ahead of the clever hardboiled sagas of Quentin Tarantino. But then again, the fact that Blast of Silence does not fit its historical moment has to be considered as further evidence of the cinematic brilliance of Baron.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/blast-of-silence/