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Blast of Silence

Blast of Silence
Criterion 428
1961 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 77 min. / Street Date April 15, 2008 / 29.95
Starring Allen Baron, Molly McCarthy, Larry Tucker, Peter H. Clune, Danny Meehan, Charles Creasup, Milda Memonas.
Cinematography Merrill S. Brody
Art Direction Charles Rosen
Film Editor Merrill S. Brody, Peggy Lawson
Original Music Meyer Kupferman
Written by Allen Baron and Mel Davenport (Waldo Salt)
Produced by Merrill S. Brody
Directed by Allen Baron

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Blast of Silence has been a wanna-see curiosity for years, ever since it showed up in the first edition of the Silver/Ward Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. The gritty B&W independent won a minor release from Universal and some positive foreign reviews. Director Allen Baron certainly considers it a success, as it earned him a career directing for television. Hollywood in 1961 was an almost completely closed shop. Ten years later a no-budget independent like The Honeymoon Killers had a better chance of reaching the public, but in the year of West Side Story and El Cid, small, personal movies were mostly invisible.

Although neither a classic nor entirely well made, Blast of Silence is certainly ahead of its time. A fatalistic narration delivered by gravel-voiced Lionel Stander and written by the blacklisted Waldo Salt lends this New York story poetic distinction even as it trowels on a layer of pretense. But Allen Barron's spare narrative and nihilistic attitude clearly blazed the trail for the likes of Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese and other makers of films about mean city streets.


Killer-for-hire Frank Bono (Allen Baron) comes to New York to complete a contract. While stalking his prey he takes in the sights of the Christmas season and allows himself to be spotted by an old pal from the orphanage. Breaking his professional rule about personal contacts on the 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. Big Ralph (Larry Tucker), a local source for hot guns, confuses things by demanding more money. Bono's simple hit suddenly becomes far too complicated.

Blast of Silence follows the out-of-town goon Frank Bono on a fateful holiday stopover in Manhattan. Much like a certain later 'God's lonely man', he trudges out of Penn station, rents a car and picks up his assignment to kill. Very little actually happens, as Bono contacts only a couple of people on his cross-town travels. Big Ralph is a disgusting slob who claims to be lonely; Bono carefully withholds information about his assignment. But Bono makes a bigger mistake by allowing people from his past to intrude on his death mission. For a few hours he remembers that he's a living human being, which robs him of the ice-cold edge needed to perform his appointed task. Isolation and loneliness are both his curse and his refuge, and when he violates his own code, all bets are off.

Director Baron doubles as the sad-eyed Bono, and does a creditable job. Audiences in 1961 probably didn't even register his laid-back performance. Cinematographer, editor and producer Merrill S. Brody gives the film an adequate look, stealing shots of Bono strolling past Christmas store displays. The movie is too tightly scripted and laid out to have the looseness of a John Cassavetes picture, but it's also 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.

Baron may also have been influenced by 1953's The Thief, a gimmick picture that follows spy Ray Milland around Manhattan and avoids dialogue. The even better Murder by Contract (1958) is essentially the same story of a hired killer (Vince Edwards) having difficulty with his appointed mission. Blast of Silence would make an especially thoughtful double bill with Taxi Driver. Scorsese uses some of the same visuals, as when Baron holds on Bono walking forward down a long drafty-looking street, backed by Meyer Kupferman's jazz score. Scorsese's uses dissolves to 'jump' his Travis Bickle closer, shortening the long walk. That jazz, by the way, is the glue that holds the film together; it's quite good, and helps to enforce the existential feel.

Some reviewers have called Blast of Silence pretentious, mainly for its eccentric voiceover. Films noir are of course known for their fatalistic, hardboiled voiceovers, especially when the story is told in flashback form. Both Philip Marlowe and Jeff Markham affect an offhand, cynical tone. This narration is more of a poetic comment on Frank Bono, from an omniscient voice of the city. The speaker (Stander) seems to know every mistake Bono is about to make. The disembodied voice addresses Bono at length in the second person, a form seldom used in noir. The Naked City is an exception.

Other touches give Blast of Silence some of the qualities of an experimental film. The 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, like Beat Poetry. We hear a baby crying before the train emerges from the tunnel. It grabs the attention, make no mistake.

If Blast of Silence no longer has quite the effect it once had, it's because bleak, low-budget independents about emotionally conflicted killers are no longer unusual. Allen Baron's show is probably best approached from an historical point of view. 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.

Criterion's DVD of Blast of Silence is a fine presentation of a rare picture that we'd frankly expect to see released by a gray market seller. That it's here at all is a gift, but the transfer is a bit questionable. We're told that 1.33:1 is its original aspect ratio, but by 1961 one expects all U.S. releases to be at widescreen, at least 1:66. The full frame compositions look both loose and shapeless, and sure enough, when matted off on a widescreen monitor everything is framed handsomely. (see still mock-ups above) The text blocks in the title sequence crop perfectly at 1:78, so Savant's going to go out on a limb and say that Criterion's OAR is really someone's opinion (perhaps Baron's) of how the film should be shown on video. 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.

This is one Criterion disc where the extras could use some trimming. A very long docu Requiem for a Killer: The Making of "Blast of Silence" is a re-edit of an older interview docu with Allen Baron, adding new Baron material. It takes Baron to all of the old locations, and seems to repeat every notable moment in the movie. Despite being so lengthy, the docu barely mentions Merrill S. Brody or his major contribution to the show. Galleries of on-set Polaroids, more location comparison photos and a (rather good) original Universal trailer are included as well. The insert booklet contains a thoughtful essay by Terrence Rafferty. An added insert is a brief graphic comic treatment by Sean Phillips, in a style that simply reproduces frames from the film. The package artwork flatters Allen Baron by making him look like George C. Scott.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Blast of Silence rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good questionable aspect ratio
Sound: Good
Supplements: hour-long docu Requiem for a Killer, location photos, location comparisons, insert essay by Terrence Rafferty, graphic novel insert by Sean Phillips
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 26, 2008

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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