Friday, September 20, 2013

FI: Blast of Silence

Blast of Silence
US, 1961
Written and directed by Allen Baron

Despite being produced after the end of what's generally considered the noir period (roughly the '40s and '50s, with the peak coming post–World War II), Allen Baron's Blast of Silence is among the blackest noirs ever made. It's short for a feature film, clocking in well below 90 minutes, and uses most of its time to develop the meticulous methods of Frankie Bono (Baron himself), a hitman who comes to New York to fulfill a contract on a low-level mob boss (Peter H. Clune). As Frankie studies his quarry, we study him, accompanied by second-person narration from Lionel Stander (written pseudonymously, at least according to IMDb, by the great Waldo Salt). Second-person present can be a tricky tense in which to write, and it risks alienating the audience, but here the gimmick succeeds in bringing us into Frankie's isolated, nervous mindset.

Blast of Silence was distributed by Universal Studios, but it smacks of the nascent American independent cinema movement. There are no big-name stars, it was shot on location in New York, and couldn't have had much of a budget. Aside from Baron's triple duty as writer/director/lead, Baron's childhood friend Merrill Brody also serves as producer, cinematographer, and co-editor. Clearly, this is a labor of love. Baron went on to work almost exclusively in TV, with only a handful of feature work under his belt, which strikes me as a shame considering the skill he displays here. Everything is tight and methodically plotted, and the film's sense of claustrophobia is heightened by Brody's low-key lighting and entrapping framing. Noir is always about the psychology of the individual writ large upon the world in which he lives, and here that world is a cold, mistrusting trap.

Frankie's particular psychological issues stem from his lonely childhood as an orphan. When he meets people from that past who seem to have emerged unscathed—most notably Lori (Molly McCarthy), an old flame—his isolationism begins to crack. He imagines, however briefly, the possibility of another way of life. But in the cruel world of film noir, such fantasies can be dangerous, even fatal. Blast of Silence has little time for pity, and is all the better for it.

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