Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Back in the Cold, Black Silence

BLAST OF SILENCE (Allen Baron; USA; 1961)

This blog post is my wee inaugural contribution to the For the Love of Film (Noir) Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. After the rousing success of last year's Film Preservation Blogathon, this year's efforts are for the benefit of the Film Noir Foundation, who endeavour to restore Cy Endfield's film noir classic The Sound of Fury (1950). The blogathon runs from Feb 14 to 21. Check out everyone else's blog posts, being collated by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. And donate to the Foundation!!!! It doesn't hurt. Hit the big ol' button below.

Arriving at the tail-end of the supposed heyday of film-noir filmmaking, Allen Baron's Blast of Silence comes across as an early mutation of the film noir blueprint, a kind of twisted bastard child born from years of pent-up celluloidal anger, violence, and paranoia. This is one heck of an awkward, angular, and abrasive film, it's beauty derived from unremitting seediness and grime. The inauguration of the film seems to be taking noir to its very literal extreme, offering a black screen and the words of a narrator intoning in a tough-as-nails hard-boiled way “Remembering out of the black silence. You were born in pain.” The black screen steadily reveals an ever growing aperture, and as we hear a woman's strangled screams, a smack, a baby's cry, and the narrator referring to the lead character's birth into the world, the film is born into the world, via the locomotion of a train, and the aperture reveals a tunnel. In one moment, the birth of the main character is conflated with the birth of the film, which is conflated also with the very birth of cinema itself (trains and cinema forever intertwined through Lumiere's L'Arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat).

And right from the outset we are introduced to two key components of the film – the relentless barrage of words spouted by the unseen, unknown narrator, and the pain, anger, and hate he talks of in his first few sentences. Frankie Bono, a hired killer originally from New York and now working in Cleveland, who comes back to New York around Christmas time to perform a routine hit, has his every action commented upon by this ceaseless voice. This continual chatter indicates some kind of psychosis, a voice in Frankie's head that can also begin to drive the spectator mad as well. The narrator spews forth a torrent of thoughts, almost all of them alluding to anger and hatred, and a preference for loneliness and coldness, emotional and physical. “You were born with hate and anger built in. Took a slap in the backside to blast out the scream and then you knew you were alive.” It's clear the narrator is talking to us as much as he is talking to and about Frankie. This inability for the narrator to shut up is annoying yet unusually appealing - here is a film that actually seems to want us to feel like we're being goaded, poked, and prodded, a film that suddenly seems to be speaking to us and telling us how damn painful the act of living is supposed to be.

Even the simplest of exchanges are imbued with savagery and petulance. The ubiquitous noir scene of the hitman meeting the anonymous messenger is presented here as a game of surreptitious physical torment, with the messenger jabbing Frankie repeated and violently in the ribs with a finger, and Frankie ending their exchange by treading firmly on the messenger's foot. Except for key moments, rage is hardly ever visibly etched on any characters face, yet the films seems to boil and bubble with constrained volatile emotions. Frankie meets an old female friend and his ice-like clarity starts to dissipate. As his emotions surface, his only way of expressing them is in a forced and brutal manner, meaning that when he tries to embrace her and woo her, he ultimately ends up trying to rape her. This seems to prove the narrator right – emotions, in this world, are best left cold, dormant, unexpressed, and unattended.

The gritty, darkened city is of course a key trope in film noir, but never before has a city been portrayed so synaesthetically. New York can be felt and smelt. Greasy food, mouldy apartments, early morning air – scenes exude scents and textures. And as Frankie's mental state seems to unravel, the sounds, rhythms, and textures become more intense, culminating in a near-hallucinatory moment in a night-club, where a bongo-thwacking beatnik sings of being “dressed in black all the time” and driving the cinematic rhythm into clipped paranoid snippets of eyes, limbs, and mania.

And before you start considering this film to be bleak as all hell and not worth the time, let me say just how cinematographically elegant this film often looks, even in all it's ugly ungainliness. I'm reminded here of an incredible long take of Frankie, walking a silent street in the early dawn, starting as barely a pinprick in the distance. During the course of a minute or two all we see is Frankie walking – yes, the narrator's still there, but the voice becomes a mosquito-like buzz as the scent of dawn seems to stretch to the nostrils, and that eerie quiet of early-morning city-streets emanates from the screen. Frankie keeps getting closer and closer, until his trench-coated bulk dwarves the screen and consumes us entirely. Back again, and briefly, to black.


  1. I'm still not sure I'm dying to see the film--but your description was certainly worth reading!

  2. This movie's so beautifully dark; thanks for giving it a proper tribute. I'd say Lionel Stander gives one of the all-time greatest vocal performances here (in a rare case of second-person voiceover), and how about obese character actor Larry Tucker as the gunsmith with the pet rats?

    It's really morbid, but still terrific.

  3. Cheers for the comment, Andreas! Yup Lionel Stander's voiceover is incredible, isn't it - it seems he poured all his fury and rage at being blacklisted into this performance. And Larry Tucker does pull one helluva grotesque and slimy performance - when i wrote about the scent of the film, i think it's fair to say his character is so gross, you could almost get a whiff of his stench.
    It may be ugly as hell, but I think this film is grand.