Blast of Silence (1961)
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DRESSED IN BLACK ALL THE TIME
As part of The Criterion Collection, the film noir straggler Blast of Silence (1961) is now available on domestic home video in a restored digital transfer worthy of its revered status. Even with its absolute minimum of plot, the taut 77 minute film offers considerable depth to its characterization of one of the cinema's definitive outcasts, orphaned as a child and completely ostracized in adulthood.
The film's writer/director Allen Baron also stars as lead character Frank Bono, a hitman who returns to New York City on assignment around Christmastime. He arranges his murder weapon through Big Ralph (Larry Tucker), an overweight, unkempt man Frank strongly dislikes. As Frank dutifully studies the pattern of behavior associated with his target, "second string" crime boss Troiano (Peter H. Clune), Ralph deduces the intent of Frank's contract and threatens blackmail. As Frank struggles with his professional commitment, he also must sort out his feelings for Lori (Molly McCarthy) in his private life.
Lionel Stander, blacklisted at the time, delivers the hard-boiled narration so critical to our understanding of the existentialist Frank, who has condemned himself to a life of solitude. The fairly constant narration stresses Frank's hatred of everyone and everything, most memorably observing that intended mark Troiano sports "a moustache to hide the fact he has lips like a woman." As Frank's hate manifests itself, he can kill in good conscience, even while most New Yorkers busy themselves with holiday-related concerns, as Meyer Kupferman's jazzy score provides musical accompaniment to the urban mise-en-scène. Frank's isolated character, though, receives more appropriate commentary via the song "Dressed in Black," performed by a nightclub bongo player (Dean Sheldon, I suppose enlisting Johnny Cash was out of the question due to budget constraints). Frank's perpetual need to manufacture hate keeps him excluded from mainstream society, where presumably an assassin functions best, though even his professional communications are limited and impersonal. Baron expresses Frank's dark nature quite bluntly, as when Frank forces himself on Lori, and most definitely when he attacks someone with a fire axe in a surprisingly protracted outburst of violence. The stark conclusion, among the most thematically (and environmentally) cold of films noir, dovetails instructively with the film's opening sequence, in which the literal "light at the end of the tunnel" proves to subvert the usual connotation of that phrase.
This Criterion DVD features Robert Fischer's 60m documentary "Requiem for a Killer: The Making of Blast of Silence." It's an amalgam of original footage from Wilfried Reichart's 1990 feature "Allen Doesn't Live Here Anymore," which was inspired by the re-emergence of Blast of Silence at the Munich Film Festival earlier that year, along with more recent material of Baron in Beverly Hills. The re-assembled documentary, as it is, follows Baron's return to the NYC locations where many of the key sequences from Blast of Silence were given texture. During the tour, Baron offers specifics on the making of the low budget film for which he was the only affordable star. Behind the camera, his background as a cartoonist, illustrator, and painter provided an instinctive flair for the balanced compositions and extensive location footage the film is noted for. He also explains that one of the film's most stunning shots, in which a large group of children form a swastika from an overhead view, was completely unrehearsed. In this one shot, Baron effectively captures the dehumanizing element of orphanage life. Other supplements include an on-set Polaroid gallery, photos of locations as they appear in 2008, an insightful essay from Terrence Rafferty, and a nifty graphic-novel adaptation by Sean Phillips.
Based on the modest success of Blast of Silence, Baron was able to work in Hollywood under contract, mostly in television. Reflecting back, he would have preferred to remain in New York, where he could have focused on projects he couldn't seem to get going in Hollywood. Though a bit overrated perhaps, Blast of Silence displays the fascinating promise of a New York filmmaker who might have been.
--Eric Somer, 9/27/2008
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