Blast of Silence: Noir at the End
Written, starring and directed by Alan Baron, Blast of Silence is a little gem of a film noir which signals (until proven otherwise) the true end of the film noir cycle, stealing that claim from Welles far more famous Touch of Evil (1958). A film with a wonderful beginning, a wonderful ending, and the stuff in-between is pretty good too. Baron directed a few more features after Silence, but had a long, productive career as a TV director in the 1970s and 1980s, and is still alive as of this writing, well over 90 years old. The wonderful narration, at times poetic, other times blunt, is a testament to how much a narration can add to a film when it assumes an unclear narrational stance. It seems to fluctuate in point of view between omniscient and as a voice coming from inside the protagonist Frank’s head. The voice-over is written by Waldo Salt, hiding behind the pseudonym Mel Davenport and narrated by gravelly voiced character actor Lionel Stander, who I recently saw playing an American mafia kingpin in the Fernando Di Leo classic, Milan Calibre 9 (1976). The great jazz score is by Meyer Kupferman. Both Stander, who goes uncredited, and Salt were victims of the Hollywood blacklisting. An article by Geoff Mayer in the 2010 book Encyclopedia of Film Noir (2010, ed by Mayer and Brian McDonnell) looks at the connection between the subset of film noir, the caper film, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, specifically Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle (1950).
A slimy Christmas with Ralphie (Larry ‘The Monkees’ Tucker)
A dark tunnel, a light at the end, camera jittering from the movement of the train as it nears the platform. A gruff voice-over of a man “starting from the beginning.” Not of the story but his life, recalling his birth, the pain of his screaming mother, “you were born into the world with hate and anger,” then the slap on his butt to “blast out the scream”. “Baby boy Frankie Bono.” “Later you learned to hold back the scream and learned to let it out in other ways.” The train enters the ‘light’ of the platform and said man, Frankie Bono, exits the subway, arriving from lovely Cleveland to New York, looking to lighten the Big Apple of one less criminal. As the man exits the train we hear ‘Silent Night” caroling. It’s Christmas eve, but it only brings out the hate in the voice. He hates Christmas. He hates cities. Welcome to the noirest of noir anti-heroes. A man with a job. A gun for hire. Frankie Bono. He meets his contact on the Staten Island ferry. In the middle of a body of water, an idyllic setting for job that involves snuffing out a stranger’s life. That stranger is a photo in Frankie’s hand, the face of a gangster named Troiano (Peter Clume), a small time boss who is getting too big for his britches. Like certainly in most cases, the hired killer comes up with bad things to say about his target, anything to justify his job. And a face, the third person VO tell us, “that he hates”. Less than ten minutes in and we’ve heard the word ‘hate’ at least four times, to make sure we understand that this is an anti-Christmas film. A Christmas film for Scrooges. Critic Mike White cleverly refers to Frank as “the prototype for Travis Bickle, ‘God’s lonely man.‘”
Frankie gets his next hit
Frank meets his contact for the weapon he needs for the job, a gun with a silencer. His gun contact is a slovenly, overweight, bearded man Ralph, played by Larry Tucker, living in a shabby apartment with a pet rats and ugly walls. Sensing an opportunity for a bit of price gouging, he sets a cost of $500. A small Christmas tree in his room marks the season. Ralphie is one of those smarmy types, who acts like he wants to be your friend, but there are no friends in Frank’s world. Ralph reminds me of the gross man who lives in a shabby apartment and terrorizes little girls from Alfred Sole’s minor horror classic, Alice Sweet Alice (1976). Ralphie is a man who hides his money in light fixtures. No one trusts anyone in a film noir. Leave it to Steve Puchalski, of the wonderful fanzine Shock Cinema, to note in his review that Larry Tucker would later co-develop the pop band The Monkees. Which means a slight detour and full disclosure: as a pre-adolescent I was a huge fan of The Monkees and had a boy crush on Davey Jones. I loved their goofy charm and the self-mocking persona established in their music, television show and feature film work. I would soon outgrow them for tougher musical pasture, The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, Mahogany Rush, Jimi Hendrix, but The Monkess will always hold a place in my heart. Thanks (or blame) Steve Puchalski for the detour. Back to slimy Ralph, who will soon regret every meeting Frank.
Frankie giving to the poor
With time to wait for the gun to arrive Frank walks the festive streets of Manhattan. The camera tracks along busy sidewalks, Christmas songs, decorations, shoppers, staged storefronts, even a ‘festive’ flip transition, all which belie Frankies’s purpose: to kill. If things would have gone his way, Christmas eve is as good as any for a murder. He meets someone from his orphanage past, Petey, a chance meeting the voice-over describes as “another bad moment.” The last thing a hit man wants is to leave a trace. And people who know him are traces. Petey’s sister, Laurie (Molly McCarthy), arrives to complicate his visit. Frankie and Laurie had a past, not much of one, but enough to rekindle tiny flames. He is clearly attracted to Laurie and the VO makes up an excuse for his decision to hang around, to “play it cool”.
With the party gang egging them on, Frank and Pete play a ridiculous game where they race a peanut across the floor with the tip of their nose. Somehow I can’t imagine Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum getting down on their knees to push a peanut along the floor with their nose! The chance meeting leads to a dinner date at Laurie’s apartment, where the awkward, anti-social Frankie attempts to force himself on her, which frightens her and ends the night on an uncomfortable note of misogyny (Frankie’s inability to interact with the opposite sex in a socially acceptable manner brings to mind again, the allusion to Travis Bickle, who brings Cybil Sheppard to a porno theatre on their first date. Baron’s performance is quite striking in its naturalness, which fits with the overall film style, which is exclusively shot on location and assumes an objective narrational point of view. Baron plays Frank with an edginess that strips his performance of any of the usual tough guy ticks a more experienced Hollywood actor might have brought to the role. Frank is not a usual tough guy. He is a professional but not one that seems a step away from a slip up.
A scene at a nightclub where Frank is staking Troiano complicates things when Ralph the gun contact is seated with Troiano. When Ralph makes the connection that Frankie’s target is Troiano, he wants to extort more money from him. A long wordless passage with only the club’s jazz band playing creates a nice tension, with Ralph showing up his strength by taking on two men in an arm wrestle. A tense exchange between them occurs in the washroom. Frankie bides his time for a more opportune time to rid himself of the problem Ralph has now become. The scene comes right after the restaurant scene, and is one of the more violent scenes in American scene of the time. Frank surprised Ralph with a brutal attack in his apartment and strangles him to death (echoing Quinlan’s strangling of Grandi in Touch of Evil). By this point we’ve pretty much forgotten it’s the season to be jolly.
Frank kills Ralphie
A great long take scene in a phone booth tightens the grip around Frank’s dark world. The camera remains close-up on Frank as he calls his boss to try to back out of the job, but it only backfires and puts more pressure on him. He seeks the comfort of Laurie’s voice, but she can’t see him on short notice, although she forgives him for his forced aggression the other night.
The voice-over remarks, “another bad moment” when he meets his first contact at the docks, another standby noir setting which recalls such classics as The Maltese Falcon and On the Waterfront. The voice-over begins to take sarcastic shots at poor Frank, “you could have been an engineer…..you could have been an architect too.” Frank plots the hit, hiding out waiting for Troiano to arrive at his mistresses’ apartment in Brooklyn (Troiano lives in the suburbs of Long Island, how duller can you get). When the plan is going well, the voice-over gloats on, “Keeping watch on Troiano the hair goes up on the back of your neck where it’s short….you got a feeling like this is how it was meant to be, like you are Troiano’s fate…..like you’re…God”, at which point the camera cuts from Frank on the staircase to an amazing extreme long, low angle shot of Frank on the roof, like Cody Jarrett at the end of White Heat, “look ma, top of the world.” With a detail that would have certainly made the censors uncomfortable, Baron films Frank cleaning and prepping his gun for use in a series of static, close-up long takes. Too much detail for the copycats. An orphan himself, Frankie must have felt a twitch of another “bad moment” when he looks out of the building and sees an orphanage visible outside his victim’s window, the voice-over promises Frankie, “just one more killing, just one more, and then you won’t have to be alone anymore.” Is this something he’s thought of before? Or has Frank really come to the end? For the first time, we hear subjective voice-over, Frankie recalling Laurie’s comment about how he is a “good looking man” and only needs a woman to make him happy. The delusions of a film noir anti-hero. Frankie goes to Laurie’s apartment, confessing his new found desire for domesticity, but instead of a hero’s welcome, he sees her with another man. . It is clear in the many images of windows with air conditioners in place that much of the film was not shot at Christmas time, but during warmer days of summer.
Frankie ends up like Hank Quinlan: dead in the gutter
Next stop the hit, better to “slap out his anger.” Frankie’s plan to sabotage Troiano in his mistresses’ apartment works flawlessly. Troiano walks in completely disarmed, carrying a gift of a stuffed bear in his arm. Frankie shoots him point blank. As if a study of Eisenstein-style associational editing, the first person Frank interacts with after the hit is a nun sitting on a street asking for donations. Frank drops in a few coins, as if to pay for his sins. But the world of film noir has another form of justice in mind for Frank, who played his cards too openly about wanting out of the “organization”. We’ve seen too many film noir to know how that request usually ends. As Frank prepares his exit, tossing the weapon in the river, calling for his payment, a strong gust of wind on a dreary day sets us up a bleak farewell for our ostensible hero as two serious looking men meet him at the docks. It would not take two men to make the payment. To note during the final twenty or so minutes of the film, dialogue is at a minimum, replaced by a jaunty, brassy jazz score. Frank is trapped by the two men and chased along the wharf, like the pet rats in Ralph’s cages, and ends up shot dead at the river’s edge, lying in mud, like so many countless movie gangsters before him. The voice-over wraps the story and Frank’s life up with a poetic ring that echoes the opening, his birth, and closes the circle of Frank’s life, by noting “God moves in mysterious ways they said….your alone now…all alone, the scream is dead. There’s no pain, your home again, back in the cold black silence.”