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Blast of Silence

by Glenn Erickson Dec 23, 2023

This once-obscure item has accumulated a solid cult following. Allen Baron writes, directs and stars in a gritty on-the-streets tale of a hit man having difficulties lining up his latest score. The over-achieving tiny independent feature bursts with arresting storytelling and eye-opening visuals. It’s holiday time in the Big Apple, and the camera records the Manhattan streets in full yuletide regalia. Good on ya, Criterion — in this new remastered edition, the sordid story of Frank Bono is finally formatted in its original 1:85 theatrical screen shape.


Blast of Silence
Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 428
1961 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen and 1:33 full frame / 77 min. / Street Date December 5, 2023 / Available from / 39.95
Starring: Allen Baron, Molly McCarthy, Larry Tucker, Peter H. Clune, Danny Meehan, Charles Creasup, Milda Memonas, Lionel Stander (Narrator).
Cinematography: Merrill Brody
Art Director: Charles Rosen
Film Editor: Peggy Lawson
Original Music: Meyer Kupferman
Narration written by Mel Davenport (Waldo Salt)
Screenplay by Allen Baron
Produced by Merrill Brody
Directed by
Allen Baron

Scan through movie newspaper ads for the summer of 1961, and you may catch a blurb for a lowly second feature, the kind of cheap filler studios tacked on fulfill their contracts with distributors. Blast of Silence remained a critical obscurity well into the 1970s, when it showed up in the first edition of the Silver/Ward Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. Allen Baron’s mini-independent is a first-person account of a lone contract killer going about his business, a sordid little item filmed on location in New York City. In terms of post-Noir crime trends, Irving Lerner’s 1958 Murder by Contract got there first with its tale of a similar hit man taking care of business in Los Angeles. Later noir critics noted both films’ influence on Martin Scorsese, who heartily agreed when discussing his Taxi Driver.

Filmed in the cold Christmas season and during a real-life hurricane, Blast of Silence was a shoestring production lacking in star names. Ten years later a no-budget independent like The Honeymoon Killers had a much better chance of reaching the public. But in the year of West Side Story and  El Cid, Hollywood was much more of a closed shop. But Universal liked what they saw, and Baron succeeded in making a sale. His feat can’t be discounted. The show started the ambitious writer, director and star on a career directing for television.

 

Blast of Silence was certainly ahead of its time, and now occupies a special corner of post-Noir filmmaking brilliance. Its deglamorized nihilism is expressed through cameraman-producer Merrill Brody’s raw images, backed by Meyer Kupferman’s jazz music score and a particularly good voiceover narration written by Waldo Salt, and delivered as Beat Poetry by the gravel-voiced actor Lionel Stander. The commentary adds a psychological twist to the film’s gloomy fatalism. Neither Salt nor Stander’s names appear in the credits — both had been blacklisted years before.

“You’re a loner. That’s the way it should be. You’ve always been alone. By now it’s your trademark. You like it that way.”

Perhaps responding to the sub-Kerouac voiceovers, Eugene Archer of the New York Times declared the film “simultaneously awkward and pretentious.”  We now read that as a sideways endorsement. The film does open in art-speak mode, declaring the ‘birth’ of its brutal leading player with the visual of a train exiting a tunnel. Killer-for-hire Frank Bono (Allen Baron) arrives in a dank New York City to complete a contract, his movements shadowed by the running commentary of a detached narrator (Lionel Stander). Frank receives his assignment on the Staten Island Ferry, and drops in on Big Ralph (Larry Tucker), a local source for hot guns.  

When not stalking his prey Frank can’t resist taking in the sights of the Christmas season, and is accosted by a pal from his childhood in an orphanage. Breaking a professional rule against personal contacts while on a job, Frank attends a party and then has an unhappy encounter with Lorrie, an old girlfriend (Molly McCarthy). The holiday over, Frank puts his mind back on his target, only for Big Ralph to make trouble by demanding more money. Bono’s simple hit is picking up too many unwanted complications.

 

Nothing is easy for Frank.

Frank Bono’s Manhattan visit is no Christmas frolic. Much like Robert De Niro’s later ‘God’s lonely man,’ Frank trudges out of Penn station, rents a car and picks up the trail of his target assignment. His business contacts are hostile in different ways. Big Ralph is a disgusting slob who claims to be lonely; Bono carefully withholds information from him. But Frank’s bigger mistake is letting himself be a human being for a few hours. Allowing people from his past to intrude on his death mission, he loses his ice-cold focus on his appointed task. For Frank, isolation and loneliness are both a curse and a refuge. When he violates his own code, all bets are off.

As the story goes, filmmaker Allen Baron had Peter Falk lined up to play Frank Bono, only for the actor to land a good role as another more famous contract murderer. Director Baron lacks the looks of a movie star yet seems perfect for the role. He isn’t photogenic, but he’s never boring; he feels much more authentic than Peter Falk would have been. Strolling down the avenues past Christmas store displays, this Frank Bono fits right into the documentary look achieved by cinematographer, editor and producer Merrill Brody.

 

With the help of friends and relatives that worked for free, Baron made Blast of Silence into a viable commercial release. The show’s professional polish surely appealed to the Universal brass. It is too tightly scripted to resemble the first films of John Cassavetes, and it’s too artful to be a cheapie imitation of Hollywood work. If one must go the art-movie route, the immediate comparison might be with Robert Bresson: the spare production, the lonely anti-hero. Allen Baron takes the credit for the film’s look, but he was in every shot. The cameraman was the final judge of all those excellent compositions in the chilly Manhattan streets.

Lionel Stander Talks the Talk.

Traditional voiceovers in film noir are written in the First Person. They give resonance to a detective’s thought process or allow him to relate a star-crossed back story. The speaker in Blast of Silence is an omniscient Voice of Fate, with a play-by-play commentary more detached than that offered by producer Mark Hellinger in his powerful  The Naked City. Hellinger sometimes spoke in the Second Person, directing his comments to characters on screen. Lionel Stander also breaks into the second person now and then, speaking directly to Frank Bono. He knows every mistake Frank is about to make, and tries to warn him.

Was the expressive narration script part of the original screenplay?  Without the Waldo Salt/Lionel Stander running commentary, the show might more closely resemble 1953’s The Thief. That gimmick picture follows spy Ray Milland around Manhattan, while entirely avoiding dialogue.

The influence of Blast on Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver isn’t just philosophical. One of Allen Baron’s more impressive shots gives us Frank Bono walking forward down a long chilly-looking street. Meyer Kupferman’s excellent jazz score is given a momentary showcase. Scorsese’s very similar shot of Travis Bickle on a NY sidewalk is abbreviated by dissolves that ‘jump’ Bickle closer to the camera. Before the eccentric editing choice, was the shot originally conceived as an unbroken take?

 

“Remembering out of the black silence, you were born in pain.”

Other touches give Blast of Silence the feel of an experimental film. That opening shot is an extended handheld take of a long tunnel, from the POV of a train moving toward the light. Over the noise of the train, the narration makes some sharp statements about birth, life and death. They’re too grating to be pretentious. We hear a baby cries over the roar of the train. It grabs the attention, make no mistake.

The wind-blown conclusion would be a major achievement in anybody’s low-budget picture. It looks genuinely freezing out in Spring Creek during a hurricane. Allen Baron proves his filmic Moxie 100%: it’s Baron himself who tumbles into the stormy water, and lies there for an extended final shot. We are reminded of the end of Touch of Evil, when Orson Welles demonstrates his own commitment to His Art by personally floating in the filth of a tidal canal.

Bleak, low-budget independents about emotionally conflicted killers are no longer unusual, but Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence was once a rare blast of pure Existential Angst. It was ahead of the genre curve even when compared to the Foreign competition — Jean-Pierre Melville,  Seijun Suzuki. It was downmarket filler for the bottom half of double bills. Let’s see, it’s 1961 and the movies playing downtown tonight are Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Splendor in the Grass. But what’s this unknown thing called Blast of Silence?  Let’s give that a try.

 


 

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Blast of Silence is an impressive remaster of this over-achieving tiny independent. The Universal executives looking for viable distribution candidates must have been impressed taken by the show’s good looks and edgy grit. We love noirs shot on location in the big city.

We never encountered Blast on TV ourselves, but it’s likely that many more viewers saw it on The Box than theatrically … just a few days ago, TCM screened it flat yet again. Criterion says that this is the first release that retains the film’s original theatrical ratio, masked off to 1:85. The main titles sit well in the wider scan, and the compositions are much improved. If you prefer the film unmatted and flat, fear not — a second 1:33 pass is present, preserving the views of ceilings and Manhattan gutters. Everybody should be happy. We really appreciate those ‘time travel’ images of New York from the past . . . although I’m sure some of the same broken curbs are still in place, un-repaired.

 

The audio is very good, although the original tracks were probably always on the rough side. Lionel Stander’s voice barely cuts through the din of the opening train tunnel shot.

As might be expected, little or no original documentation for Allen Baron’s film; was anyone even shooting production stills?  The main extra is the making-of docu Requiem for a Killer, Robert Fischer’s re-edit of an older interview piece with Allen Baron. It takes Baron to all of the old locations. We hear some good stories, and all that’s missed is more input about Merrill Brody’s contribution to the show. Galleries of on-set Polaroids, more location comparison photos and a (rather good) original Universal trailer are included as well. An insert folder carries a thoughtful essay by Terrence Rafferty A second insert is a brief graphic comic treatment by Sean Phillips, in a style that reproduces frames from the film. The package artwork flatters Allen Baron by making him look like George C. Scott.

TCM Online threw away years of terrific Movie Morlocks articles, but it hasn’t discarded another category of writing. Still viewable is Richard Harland Smith’s bullet-point ‘just the facts’ listing of pertinent details on the filming of Blast of Silence.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Blast of Silence
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Requiem for a Killer: The Making of Blast of Silence by Robert Fischer and Fiction Factory
On-set Polaroids
Location comparison
Trailer
Insert essay by Terrence Rafferty
Graphic-novel adaptation by artist Sean Phillips.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
December 21, 2023
(7053blas)
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Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

Here’s Joe Dante on Blast of Silence:

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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