Friday, October 14, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Blast of Silence (1961)

Blast of Silence (1961) *** ½
Directed by: Allen Baron.
Written by: Allen Baron and Waldo Salt (Narration).
Starring: Allen Baron (Frank Bono), Molly McCarthy (Lori), Larry Tucker (Big Ralph),  Peter H. Clune (Troiano),  Danny Meehan (Petey),  Howard Mann (Body Guard),  Charles Creasap (Contact Man),  Bill DePrato (Joe Boniface), Lionel Stander (Narrator).

Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence (1961) came right after what most historians consider to be the age of classic film noir – which ended in 1959. Yet the film would fit easily alongside the film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s. It is also one of the first truly independent films in America, and has echoes of John Cassavetes Shadows (1959), although it tells a tighter, more cohesive plot than the Cassavetes film. It is an odd, one of a kind film, perhaps because writer/director Allen Baron only made three films after this one – and none of them are very well regarded. His career, which seemed to get to such a promising start with Blast of Silence, never really amounted to anything behind the camera. And that’s a shame, because Blast of Silence is pretty damn good.

The movie stars Baron as Frank Bono, a hit man from Cleveland who has come to Manhattan at Christmastime to kill a low level mobster named Troiano (Peter H. Clune). We don’t know why Troiano needs to be killed, and neither does Bono, but he doesn’t really care either. Both the fact that Bono is from out of town, and that it’s Christmas, are key to the movie. Bono is a perpetual outsider – an out-of-towner if you will – everywhere he goes. He doesn’t seem quite comfortable in his own skin and is completely miserable. He tries to grasp onto something in his life – a girl he used to know, Lori (Molly McCarthy), but she rejects him, as well she probably should.

Bono has a lot of time to kill in New York. He has stalked Troiano to get to know his routine, and the best way to kill him, but he has to wait for days on end for the morbidly obese gun dealer Big Ralph (a brilliantly creepy Larry Tucker) to get the gun he needs. So Bono stalks the streets of New York – seeing the happy, holiday shoppers, the displays in the windows, and just getting lonelier and lonelier.

One of the most striking things about Blast of Silence is the narration. It was written by Waldo Salt (who was blacklisted at the time, so he went under another name) and delivered by fellow blacklistee Lionel Stander, with the perfect gravelly voice. Oddly, the narration is in the second person – which means it refers to Bono in personal pronouns like “you” – as if God himself is talking directly to Bono, whispering dread into his ear for the whole movie. I looked to try and find another example of second person narration in film, and I simply can’t, although I’m sure there are some (and would love to hear about other examples). This mode of narration is odd, and yet it works wonderfully well for the film.

Blast of Silence has had some big time supporters over the years (Martin Scorsese has called it a “key New York film”), but probably because Allen Baron never really had much of a career after this film, it has pretty much languished in obscurity until Criterion released a special edition DVD a few years back. What emerges is a unique film, part film noir, part messy, independent film, and wholly original. It isn’t a perfect film by any means – although the cinematography is for the most part superb, the film does have some of the uneasiness that many first films do. The acting isn’t particularly great (I was never sure if Bono’s unease was really his own, or the unease of Baron himself – no matter it works), with really only Larry Tucker (better known as a writer than actor) delivering a great performance, although one that is all too brief. And yet, Blast of Silence is a wonderful curiosity piece – a one of a kind film that should have been the start of great career for Baron. It didn’t, but we should be thankful he made this one.

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