' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Blast of Silence (1961)

Friday, December 15, 2023

Friday's Old Fashioned: Blast of Silence (1961)

Few characteristics are as paramount to film noir as fatalism, and yet for all the potent examples of pessimistic predetermination coursing through that indispensable genre, I’m not sure it has ever been more harshly distributed than 1961’s “Blast of Silence,” a lost, then found entry of the genre from 1961 currently screening on the Criterion Channel. Directed by its star Allen Bara, it ain’t playing from the get-go, opening with a diabolically inventive sequence that equates a shot from onboard a train speeding toward the end of a tunnel with a newborn baby emerging from the mother’s womb as a voiceover transforms one of those post-birth all staff emails (“Father doing well”) by way of a wicked declaration of the human condition – “You were born with hate and anger built in.” Given this beginning and a title like “Blast of Silence,” you know what’s coming, and that lends power, life as a train barreling from one dark tunnel to another, the conclusion on a vividly desolate stretch of the Hudson River that is so cold, so absolutely cold, that it sort of looped around and left me laughing like a guy took a pie to the face. 

Bara is that newborn baby boy, Frankie Bono, all grown up and now a hitman, first seen in a wide shot walking through Penn Station that put me in mind of Harry Lime dismissing all those people moving below the Ferris wheel in “The Third Man” as mere “dots.” In effect, Frankie’s just a dot, and in New York to rub out another dot, some rich so and so that he tracks across the city to find a moment and a place where his target is alone. That’s all the more ironic because that’s how Frankie prefers it, being alone to being in the company of others, and “Blast of Silence’s” soundtrack notes this by deploying a jaunty jazz bop when he’s on a mission and turning more aloof and edgy when he’s trying to make something akin to a connection, like with the sister (Molly McCarthy) of an old friend he meets and to whom he pitifully tries to commit more from desperation than anything like real love. Or maybe that’s just seasonal affective disorder given the movie’s Christmastime setting. Shot mostly without permits, according to TCM, Bara and his cinematographer Merrill Brody accrue incredible atmosphere from their guerilla camerawork, the holiday lights and revelers juxtaposed against the loneliness of this lone man and his mission, and when he trails the nefarious man (Larry Tucker) who sells him the gun for the job to whack him and clear up a loose end, it provides a delicious twist on the hustle and bustle of the season.

Nothing stands out in “Blast of Silence,” however, more than the narration. Per TCM, this narration was added during post-production in an effort to make the movie make more sense. Really, it would make all necessary sense without the voiceover, but as written by Waldo Salt and performed by Lionel Stander (both uncredited, both blacklisted), the narration proves more vital emotionally than narratively. It doesn’t come across so much like Frankie’s inner monologue as a voice in Frankie’s head, teasing him, taunting him, prodding him, telling him what he’s going to do before he does, just try not to, I dare you. And this is also why Peter Falk, who was originally slated to play the role of Frankie, probably would have been all wrong. He was an actor, true, duh, and undoubtedly could have done something different, but this isn’t a Columbo part. Bara’s stone-faced presence works perfectly juxtaposed against Stander’s needling narration, evincing a silent loner being eaten away inside and Christmas as the loneliest time of the year. That’s why there is something truly twisted in how Bara puts a stuffed animal in the hands of the man he’s been hired to kill so that when he does, finally, kill him, it looks for all the world like he’s just shot Santa Claus. 

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