For anybody passionate about film, especially nuggets from the past, I cannot recommend Dave Kehr’s weekly new DVD’s column in the N.Y. Times highly enough. On April 15th, Kehr reported on the new release of an obscure 1961 film noir called “Blast of Silence”:
“Blast of Silence,” coming out Tuesday in a very good edition from the Criterion Collection, stands out even in this field for its elemental style and relentlessly bleak vision. A late film noir shot with hardly a trace of the Expressionist distortions that initially defined the genre, Mr. Baron’s terse, 77-minute feature describes a few days in the life of a seasoned hit man, played with few surface signs of emotion by Mr. Baron himself.
An expert imported from Cleveland, Frank (Baby Boy) Bono has been assigned to eliminate a “second-string syndicate boss with too much ambition.” An easy assignment, but one that will require him to spend a few days in New York during the Christmas season, just enough time to fall in love, or something like it, with the sister (Molly McCarthy) of a half-forgotten acquaintance. This is a disturbing development for Frankie, whose hands sweat uncontrollably when he’s around other people.
Mr. Baron’s stripped-down visuals are complemented by an almost continuous voice-over narration, composed under a pseudonym (“Mel Davenport”) by the blacklisted writer Waldo Salt (“Midnight Cowboy”) and read (with no credit at all) by the blacklisted actor Lionel Stander: “You were born with hate, and anger built it. Took a slap on the backside to blast out the scream. And then you knew you were alive.”
This curious mode of address – the second person accusative? – places the viewer in Frankie’s uncomfortable skin, cornering us into taking the side of this faceless, largely passive psychopath as he drifts along to his noir-mandated doom.
But for all of its pulp poetry – the picture begins in a railroad tunnel, transformed by the narration into a birth canal that will blast the silently screaming Frankie into the harsh reality of Penn Station – the film retains a down-and-dirty, documentary aspect. The studiously gray, unglamorous views of 1961 Manhattan – St. Marks Place, where Frankie takes a room at the Valencia Hotel; the blanked-out East 30s, where Frankie’s mark has a girlfriend stashed in a walk-up apartment – are worth the price of admission alone. Here’s what was being left out of those Madison Avenue melodramas and Park Avenue romances of the period.
This just about sums up everything I would have written about “Blast of Silence” after watching a Netflix rental, but I do have a few other things to add.
The film score, which alternated between Stan Kenton type riffs and art movie atonality, was composed by Meyer Kupferman who died at the age of 77 in 2003. The N.Y. Times obituary notes:
Mr. Kupferman embraced virtually every form available to contemporary composers, writing 12 symphonies, nine ballets and seven operas, along with electronic pieces, works that combine taped sounds and live instruments and soundtrack music for films. He composed 10 concertos, dozens of picturesque orchestral works and more than 200 chamber and solo works.
He was omnivorous stylistically, too, a quality he traced back to childhood memories of his father’s singing Yiddish and Romanian songs to him, which he would imitate on the clarinet, an instrument that he also used to imitate solos in the big band jazz he heard on the radio.
Suffice it to say that Kupferman was at the top of his game when he wrote the score for “Blast of Silence”.
Watching “Blast of Silence” brought me back to my own youth in 1961, when I walked the same streets in New York that the hit man anti-hero walks. This is a city that I loved just as much as Allen Baron did. For both of us, the city was a symbol of the artistic and cultural ferment that was beginning to eat away at the repressive 1950s. In the documentary that accompanies “Blast of Silence”, Baron explains hiring Stander as a way to save money since a blacklistee could be hired on the cheap.
Although Baron does not discuss politics, my guess is that he instinctively knew that people like Stander and screenwriter Waldo Salt would make it a better film since the Hollywood left had been long associated with the film noir genre. When watching the “Trumbo” documentary the other night, I was surprised to learn that Dalton Trumbo wrote “Gun Crazy”, a 1950 noir that like “Blast of Silence” has dramatic power despite some mustiness. The steering wheels of the cars in either movie are enormous, almost like that on the Queen Mary.
Ironically, one of the most unintentionally comical moments in “Blast of Silence” stems from Baron’s attempt to capture what was the “leading edge” of that time, namely the bongo-playing beatnik. Frank “Baby Boy” Bono has entered the Village Gate, just one of the artifacts of 1961 that no longer exists, in order to check out one of the customers, a man he is under contract to kill. As Bono sits at the bar sizing up his prey, a beatnik nightclub singer, played by someone named Dean Sheldon, is on the bandstand performing “Dressed in Black”, followed by “Torrid Town”. You can watch this scene here. You will be left speechless.