Friday, January 20, 2012

Blast of Silence (1961) - #428

They all hate the gun they hire. When people look at you, baby boy Frankie Bono, they see death. Death across the counter. Remembering... Remembering...

Though Blast of Silence begins with birth imagery (impermeable darkness save for a single pinprick of light that eventually expands to become the open mouth of a subway tunnel,) the film plays out like a mournful final reminiscence, that trembling awful moment of helpless remorse experienced by sad lost souls as they realize their appointment with death is upon them and all that comes to mind is a flood of regrets they are now powerless to address. A short, sordid peep over the shoulder of Frankie Bono, a hate-filled hit-man, sent on a job to kill a man he's never met but soon deeply despises based on nothing more than offense at his appearance, Blast of Silence has a lot going for it for film noir aficionados - vintage New York street-level cinematography, an acute visual sensibility deriving from its director/writer/star's background in comic book illustration, as existentially bleak and dour an outlook as one could ever ask from the genre, an evocative and varied musical soundtrack capturing cool jazz, rolling marimbas and conga beats of the era. The atmosphere is dank and the characters are, without exception, rough hewn, taking us on a harsh plunge into some down and dirty business that delivers many gratifying moments when you're in one of those moods to wallow in alienation and self-serving rejection of all things warm, fuzzy and sentimental. But what lingers longest in my imagination, a couple days after watching it through for the second time, is the palpably ashen aftertaste of a life wasted and acutely aware of its own predestined failure from the moment of first encounter with the cold hostile world it dropped into.

The most unique characteristic of the film, both then and now, is the use of an unattributed second-person narrator (as demonstrated in the lead quote above.) The speaker is never revealed, and his perspective remains mysterious as it speaks in mocking tones to Frankie, tossing off incisively withering taunts with just a tinge of sarcasm and irony. Is it a "Voice of God," rendering a Judgement Day closing argument as if to prove Frankie deserved the damnation that collapsed upon him after he flawlessly - except for one slight wobble and an unplanned execution - carried out his murderous  commission? Is the Voice that of Frankie himself, an outgrowth of his inner conflicts that divides him against himself? Either could be the case, since the Voice knows things about Frankie that no other human ever would - painful memories, trivial bits of information that would lie dormant in the subconscious until triggered into awareness by odd inexplicable associations with seemingly insignificant events.

The corrosive litany of contempt, projected toward his connections, his past and future victims, the crowds of nameless strangers he weaves through... the mantric repetition of words like "hate" and "remembering"... the circuitous pacing, clandestine driving, and aimless time-consuming wander down cold, windswept streets ... the ritualistic invocation of "Baby Boy Frankie Bono" even though by now he's a grown man, now dreadfully nearer the end of his days than he quite imagines (though inwardly welcomes and is ready for, so he thinks)... the derisive congratulatory salutation, "that's just how you like it"... smug, malicious jabs about roads in life not taken, delusional notions of careers as an architect, an engineer... all delivered with a sneering wise-guy lilt by the Voice. These characteristics all point to a fractured, self-absorbed infantilism that gnawed at the core of Frankie's being. Unmet needs that go way back in his life, a back story only hinted at as the anti-hero recalls his youth spent in an orphanage much like the one he spies from his perch atop the building where he waits to fulfill his contract. Blast of Silence, an deceptively quiet little film that was quickly lost in the endless shuffle of popular entertainments, full of iconic urban wasteland imagery, calmly plucks its deep psychological notes like the bass player fingering his strings in the Village Gate nightclub, proving to be more dangerous and devastating to the fraudulent attainments of middle class prosperity than one might imagine at first glance. Frankie Bono is out there, watching and waiting for that moment when your guard is dropped, your protection is parked out on the street, when you're more vulnerable than you'll ever realize... until it's too late.

Next: Yojimbo


David said...

One of my friends list this film as one of his 2011 top 10,and you give it a 4 star rating on letterboxd,I think I really should see this one.

David Blakeslee said...

I think Blast of Silence definitely earns 4 stars, and I suppose a case could be made for an extra 1/2 star too, but I don't want to overdo it with my ratings! You can watch the whole thing on YouTube at this link:

But the supplements on the DVD are really excellent. They feature Allen Baron in the 90s and 2000s looking back on the making of the film and revisiting the original NYC locations. He really drove this project and it seems like one of those lucky strikes that a first-time filmmaker occasionally produces to start off his career, hitting artistic heights never reached in subsequent projects.

David said...

Thanks for your youtube link,Dave.Though I will try to get the dvd myself,I'm a supplement maniac!! I notice that location revisiting is an unique and interesting feature which I can only find on CC dvds.