Sunday, 14 May 2017

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Blast Of Silence (1961)

To celebrate the release of John Wick, Chapter Two this week, here is a review of a movie about another hit man, Blast of Silence!

We open on a black screen, with only the sound of a train chugging and whistling in the background. And then a a raspy voice intones: "Remembering, out of the black silence, you were born in pain..." A woman moans and shrieks, soon joined by the cries of an infant.

The pinprick of light grows -- are we in a womb? A gun barrel? No! We are in a tunnel, careening toward the exit. A title card flashes onscreen: BLAST OF SILENCE.

Thus we are introduced to the diegesis of this 1961 cheapie. Made with no-name actors on the streets of New York, Blast of Silence tells the story of a sociopathic hitman Frankie Bono (played by the film's writer-director, Allen Baron), in town to do a hit and go home. While our monosyllabic anti-hero goes about his business, the raspy narrator (blacklisted character actor Lionel Stander) offers his thoughts on the hitman's progress and his place in the world.

I love old noir movies, especially the more obscure ones. If you go looking you can find some real gems -- Born to Kill and The Narrow Margin are personal favourites of mine. Strictly speaking, Blast of Silence is not a film noir -- it was released in 1961, long after the noir cycle had run its course. But with its spare, monochromatic style and fatalistic tone, it is the perfect example of the genre.

The big selling points are all related to the film's style. The performances are mostly wooden: Baron is fine when silent, but loses all gravitas when he opens his mouth. The standout is Larry Tucker as Big Ralph, Bono's duplicitous contact in the city.

The film is well-shot, with some excellent location photography of the Big Apple's seedier locales. Meyer Kuperman's score adds to the sleazy atmosphere, swinging between jazzy urban menace and histrionic strings.

But the component which ties the whole enterprise together is Stander's extraordinary narration. Written by Waldo Salt, the narrator is never identified but appears throughout the movie to describe the protagonist's thoughts. Based on Baron's performance, it is possible that the narrator was a late addition during post-production. Whatever its origin, it is a fantastically offbeat touch which drags the movie across the line from average b-movie to true genre oddity.

Aside from its aesthetic and genre aspects, Blast of Silence is also noteworthy as a document of New York in 1960, which offers a look at the streets and fashions of the time. And because it is the early Sixties, we get one of my favourite signs of the age: bongos!

Re-released a decade ago as part of the Criterion collection, Blast of Silence is a strange, haunting picture that manages to overcome some rote writing and bland performances to emerge as one of the more striking and original crime flicks ever made.

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