Clark Douglas liked this movie much better than the rather weak follow-up, Whisper of Ruckus.
You will kill with Frankie Bono!
In 1961, the era of film noir was more or less over. The era of films featuring hit men as protagonists was still pretty far away. These things didn't stop director Allen Baron from making a traditional noir featuring a hit man as a protagonist. Blast of Silence has hidden away quietly for over four decades and will now be rediscovered thanks to this new release from the Criterion Collection. Is this low-budget New York noir a hidden gem or just another B-movie curiosity? Let's examine the case.
Facts of the Case
Frankie Bono (Allen Baron, Charlie's Angels) walks alone. He likes it that way. No friends, no family, no complications. These things would only get in the way of his work, and he can't let that happen. He's got a job to do, a big one. Crime pays, but nobody ever said it was easy. Frankie needs to focus, concentrate, move carefully, and make a hit on some rich jerk named Troiano (Peter H. Clune) in New York. That shouldn't be too hard, Frankie knows exactly where and when he can find his rich, powerful target alone and helpless.
Too bad it's the Christmas season, though. Frankie hates Christmas, it makes him feel uncomfortable and unhappy, and his loneliness starts to seem a bit too lonely. Things get even worse when a dame from the past enters the picture. He certainly never thought he'd see Lorrie (Molly McCarthy, The Flamingo Kid) again, but there she is, more beautiful than ever, and she just might like him, too. Frankie's in the wrong business to start a courtship. He should pay less attention to the pretty girl who stole his heart and a little more attention to the shady guy selling him weapons (Larry Tucker, Advise and Consent). Is Frankie going to do the job? Will he let unexpected developments in his life stand in his way? Or will he unleash the thing he is best known for: a powerful, deadly Blast of Silence?
The film grabs you at the very moment it opens. Out of nowhere, before you've had time to stuff the first handful of popcorn into your mouth, a voice from a dark alley you should stay out of growls at you: "Remembering, out of the black silence…you were born in pain…you were born with hate and anger built in. Took a slap on the backside to blast out the scream, and then you knew you were alive. Eight pounds, five ounces, baby boy Frankie Bono, father doing well. Later you learned to hold back the scream, and let out the hate and anger another way."
That voice belongs to blacklisted actor Lionel Stander, uncredited here for financial reasons. Stander provides a brutally poetic touch to the entire film, frequently turning up to address the audience and the film's often silent protagonist. He speaks in tones that are sneering, condescending, cruel, and mean-spirited, but somehow very wise and even a little sympathetic. This voice knows that it is speaking to—and about—a doomed man, that there is essentially no hope that Frankie Bono is going to make it to the finish line. We're never told this officially, but somehow we know it. This just can't have a happy ending. Not when the story is being narrated by Stander, who sometimes reaches frighteningly low levels that might make you swear that you're hearing the voice of the grim reaper.
At the film's center is the expected noir antihero, a hardboiled hit man without a sense of humor. However, as played by Baron (who also wrote and directed the film), Frankie Bono becomes something of a sympathetic tragic figure. In the very fine essay by Terence Rafferty included here, Baron's inexperience as an actor is noted. Originally, Peter Falk was to play the role of Frankie Bono but was unable to do so for scheduling reasons. Rafferty insightfully points out that Baron's stiffness and unease in front of the camera actually serves the character, who seems as if he is struggling valiantly to hide his own weaknesses.
He slips every once in a while. In the middle of a phone call, he offers a piece of information that can be called nothing short of foolish. While attempting to participate in an ordinary romantic interlude, his carefully moderated advances suddenly turn into near rape. You sense Frankie's frustration with this, his desire for strict self-control, his embarrassment at letting his facade slip. Baron may not be a great actor (though I haven't seen any of his other performances), but he is just right for this particular character.
Blast of Silence is not just a character study of a killer, though. It's also a great New York film, and breathtakingly captures many memorable snapshots of the city. Too often, even a lot of very good movies, locations feel as if they're being too carefully directed, all of the extras seem to be hand-picked and placed in just the right spot. Here, the locations feel authentic and unaltered, which may be due to the fact that Baron shot much of the film without getting permission. The remarkable feeling generated by numerous locations in the film is worth the occasional cost of having some unsuspecting folks in the background glancing at the camera. It's also impressive to note how artfully Baron presents these shots, given the shoot-and-run circumstances.
This particular noir is heavy on introspective and reflective sequences, so it's remarkable to consider what a tremendous sense of urgency the movie has. Part of this comes from Stander's narration, but other elements contribute as well. At one point in the film, Frankie is given a time limit in which to complete his assignment, giving the movie a race-against-the-clock vibe. Baron's very impressive direction of several key sequences really does manage to raise the pulse a few notches, particular a couple of violent scenes in the film's final act. Another big contribution comes from composer Meyer Kupferman, who provides a sensational jazz-influenced score that grows stronger in intensity and dissonance as it progresses. Make a note of the climactic scene when the score hits blaring levels of violence, and then consider the following moment when Kupferman finally offers a sense of peace and serenity. It's only one nice touch in a score that fits the film like a bloody glove.
Speaking of the score, it sounds pretty solid thanks to Criterion's nice DVD release. The mono sound is about as good as you could expect from a low-budget film from the early '60s, but where the DVD really impresses is in the picture quality. The black-and-white cinematography looks crisp and classy, and it's beautifully restored here. The level of detail is surprisingly excellent for a film of this sort; I have no complaints to make here.
In terms of DVD extras, this is one of Criterion's somewhat less expensive releases (retailing for $30 instead of the usual $40), and has a little less than usual in the way of bonus features. Nonetheless, what is here is very good. The only major supplement is an hour-long documentary, "Requiem for a Killer: The Making of Blast of Silence." This features Baron almost exclusively, as he offers up thoughts on the film while walking through the original shooting locations in New York. Forty minutes of this material was shot in 1990, and Criterion has supplemented it with an extra 20 minutes shot recently. It's a very good documentary, and Baron has loads of wonderful stories to share. In addition, some photo galleries and the film's enjoyably lurid theatrical trailer are here. The booklet features the Rafferty essay, and there's also an extremely cool four-page graphic novel adaptation of the film (featuring selections from the narration) by artist Sean Phillips.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only area of noteworthy concern here is the acting. Baron isn't a great actor, but he's the very best there is here. Almost everyone in the (very inexperienced) supporting cast seems to struggle just a bit during dramatic scenes. In most films, this would be a big problem, but that's not the case here. Fortunately, this is a movie that relies a lot more on atmosphere, direction, narration, and the general presence of characters than on the actors. While the weak acting only hurts a couple of key scenes, it's still a little disappointing that there's not a little more spark in these moments.
I had never seen Blast of Silence before, or even heard of it. I knew nothing about the film or Allen Baron. Now that Criterion has given me to opportunity to check it out, I can only marvel at how long this little noir gem has flown under the radar. This is a terrific little crime flick that features just about everything any noir fan could want. Simultaneously gritty and lifelike while also being quite stylish and carefully crafted, Blast of Silence is a must-have addition to the collection of noir lovers everywhere.
Unlike poor Frankie Bono, this DVD release is not guilty.
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