Thursday, August 7, 2008

"You Have to Know a Man Like a Brother to Kill Him": review of Blast of Silence (1961)

For film noir fans, one of the most significant recent DVD releases was the Criterion Collection editon of Blast of Silence. The 1962 film has never been legally available before on either VHS or DVD, and is without question one of the very last great noirs made in the U.S.

I say “last” because film noir has been best defined (by Raymond Durgnat and Paul Schrader, among others) as a cycle rather than a genre, and the start/stop dates of the production of purebred noirs is generally thought to be 1944-55. A few gems came after ’55, including Robert Wise’s quietly beautiful Odds Against Tomorrow and Orson’s absolutely perfect Touch of Evil. By 1962, the date of Blast, however, noir had disappeared from movie screens and was seen to best advantage on the TV series Naked City. The cycle may have been over, but filmmaker-star Allen Baron supplied it with a beautiful coda with the exquisitely cold, visually gorgeous Blast.

The film follows hitman Frankie Bono (Baron) as he returns to New York City to take out a mobster. From the start, we know Frankie is a doomed man (see my previous entry on Classe Tous Risques) and to add insult to injury, he’s an unrepentant tough guy who, like all hitmen, is all business and would not make a very good drinking buddy.

The low-budget NYC production pretty much flew under the radar upon its initial release — though lauded (natch) in Europe, Blast was dropped on double bills by Universal, its distributor. The complete saga of the film is recounted in a very in-depth German-produced video documentary (insanely detailed, with a full tour of the NYC locations) included on this disc. What made the film such a cult hit on the rep circuit (I first saw it at the Thalia Soho in the late ’80s), is its pitch-perfect combination of elements.

The cast are all “no-names” except for Larry Tucker (seen in Shock Corridor, and a Paul Mazursky collaborator), but they perfectly incarnate the shady characters moving around the indelibly real NYC locations (the film was made on a meager budget; as with the Italian Neo-Realists and the French New Wave, poverty is the mother of cinematic invention).

But then you’ve got the piece de resistance, the narration. Credited to “Mel Davenport,” the second-person narration, which directly addresses our antihero (“baby boy Frankie Bono, out of Cleveland”), was written by the brilliant blacklisted screenwriter Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy, Serpico, Coming Home). And it is delivered by the most hardboiled voice ever, Lionel Stander. Stander isn’t credited, Baron reveals in the documentary, because he said he’d need more money if they used his name on-screen (which seems odd, as he too was blacklisted at the time the film came out), but his voice lends an unmistakably grim yet compelling tone to the proceedings — there is no question, the guy sounds like the tough-as-nails, no-bullshit conscience of Frankie Bono. He also dispenses with philosophical statements and no-exit existential reflections on mankind that must’ve surely thrilled the French, and linked Blast close to another late-late hitman noir, Irving Lerner’s terrific Murder by Contract (1958) (DVD release, please!).

Noir fans owe it to themselves to see and re-see the picture, but it always brings up a serious question: why didn’t we hear more from Baron as a filmmaker, noir or otherwise? Well, he is quite open in the documentary included here about the fact that Hollywood beckoned, and he answered the call. He only made two theatrical features after Blast (neither of which I’ve seen, so I can’t judge if they are in the BOS ballpark), but he worked steadily for decades on successful but formulaic series television (Charlie’s Angels, Dukes of Hazzard, my favorite non-guilty pleasure, Fantasy Island, and the immortal Kolchak: the Night Stalker). We’ll never know what Baron might’ve created if he had stayed an indie working on the East instead of West Coast, but we do have Blast, and is a serious dose of hardcore noir. Rent it, and lose yourself in the tunnel of desperation that comprises the life of “baby boy Frankie Bono” — and check out Manhattan back when it was a noir paradise.

Some helpful poster put up the film’s trailer:

These scenes, though, illustrate best what the film is all about. First its stark opening:

And then a beautiful bit of noir Christmas, as Baron’s character walks through Rockefeller Center at Christmas. This truly is the lonely poetry that best defines the film noir:

1 comment:

Robert Cook said...

I also saw this amazing film at the short-lived Thalia Soho, with director Alan Baron in attendance to answer questions after the showing. I had read about the film in Re/Search's INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILMS, and I had to see this when I saw it was going to be showing. (Another film featured in the Re/Search book--featured ON the cover, as it happens, was THE MASK, which I saw at the Film Forum during one of their summer Sci-Fi film festivals. I loved that as well. It's also out now on DVD and Blu-Ray. I have BLAST OF SILENCE on DVD and I plan to get THE MASK.)