Holiday Classics: “Blast of Silence” (1961)

“Remember 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.”

Lionel Stander’s bitter opening narration to the 1961 noir “Blast of Silence” is backed by the sound of a woman’s screams and a baby’s cries, married to the image of a train blasting out of a dark tunnel and into the light. The description of protagonist—if you could call him that—Frank Bono’s (played by director and writer Allen Baron) birth and allusion to his fraught upbringing and fatalistic worldview signals his arrival in New York City. Bono is a hitman, hired by a mysterious syndicate to kill racketeer Troiano (Peter Clune). The why or how isn’t especially important. Arriving in town a few days before Christmas, Bono methodically trails Troiano and his girlfriend, obtains his gun and silencer from repugnant dealer and former acquaintance Big Ralph (Larry Tucker), and finds he has some time to kill before performing the hit. Baron filmed “Blast of Silence” on a shoestring budget on location in New York City, and we follow him as he wanders dejectedly across festive scenes (decked-out shop windows, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree) and some locations that no longer exist (the film serves as a time capsule of images original Penn Station before it was demolished a few years later, for one). Bono meets up with old colleagues and acquaintances, at one point attending a party where he encounters ex-girlfriend Lorrie (Molly McCarthy). But these social situations do little to ease Bono’s nihilism; when he finds out that Lorrie was only being nice to him out of pity, not out of actual interest in him, his repressed desire combusts into rage. You can likely predict the unhappy ending to Bono’s business trip, Stander’s second-person narration (he was uncredited and paid only $500 for his work) serving to take Bono down a peg at every turn. Noir is an inherently bleak genre, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a movie more bleak, more filled with hate for its characters and for the world they inhabit, than “Blast of Silence.”

Allen Baron as hitman Frank Bono in “Blast of Silence”

Baron was by no means an actor; he offered the lead in “Blast of Silence” to his drinking buddy Peter Falk for pennies, but Falk backed out after being offered what would become a star-making role for him in the 1960 gangster picture “Murder, Inc.” But Baron’s stiltedness ends up being the perfect fit for Bono, a man alone and out of place in the world (his isolation a feeling that the film’s holiday backdrop just emphasizes that much more), a man who could have been someone of some importance, and is instead the lowest of the low, and really feeling it at that. And Baron, along with cinematography/producer Merill Brody, imbue the otherwise grubby “Blast of Silence” with some artfully-composed shots (that could be Baron’s background as an illustrator at work).

Frank (Allen Baron) and Lorrie (Molly McCarthy) in “Blast of Silence”

“Blast of Silence” is a remarkable work, but perhaps its abject bitterness was a bit much for audiences at the time. Reviews from critics were mixed, and the film, with its tight 77 minute runtime, was released in theaters as the bottom half of double bills. It was forgotten for years, and Baron’s very few other films faded even deeper into obscurity. The filmmaker spend the bulk of the remainder of his career spanning the 70s and 80s in television, directing episodes of shows like “The Love Boat” and “Charlie’s Angels.” Baron is 95 and still kicking; hopefully, he is aware of the growing appreciation “Blast of Silence” has earned in recent years, with screenings at film festivals, on Turner Classic Movies, and a Criterion DVD release in 2008. The artistry on display makes it an even deeper shame that he didn’t make more movies, but as it stands, “Blast of Silence” is a perfect alternative Christmas movie for those folks who want to, as the narration proclaims, “lose yourself in the Christmas spirit with the rest of the suckers.”

Runtime: 77 minutes.

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