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Born With Hate and Anger Built In:
Allen Baron's Blast of Silence

The Stop Smiling DVD Review

Allen Baron on 125th Street, Harlem in BOS / Baron returns to East New York, Brooklyn

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Thursday, April 24, 2008


Blast of Silence (1961)
Directed by Allen Baron
(Criterion)

Reviewed by Brian Berger

Point blank: Blast of Silence, written and directed by Allen Baron, is one of the great American crime movies. Baron himself plays Frankie Bono, a Cleveland-based hit man who comes to New York during Christmas week for a job. What Frankie does, and thinks, during that hateful week is the entire film. From its start, in a train tunnel entering Grand Central Station, to its snowstorm finale amid the hassocks and rushes of Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, there is no other point of view — what Frankie knows, we know.

Or, perhaps, there’s something more, as it’s unclear how well Frankie knows himself, or heeds the voices in his head. This is the film’s first brilliant stroke. There’s Frankie, methodically preparing for the kill — getting his assignment and half the dough upfront on the Staten Island Ferry; arranging to buy a gun and a silencer via fat Ralphie (the awesome Larry Tucker, on his way to Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor); stalking his victim from Long Island into the city — and there’s the narrator, who is... what precisely?

In real life, it was the rumbling, edgy voice of Lionel Stander, some rough years on from the bravura 1953 HUAC testimony that put him deep on the blacklist. Stander’s exclusion from the film’s credits wasn’t political, however, it was simply a matter of money: The well-known, albeit unemployable, actor offered to read the part for $500 anonymously, $1,000 for attribution. Baron, working independently on a shoestring budget, chose the less expensive option.

Stander’s words are credited to one Mel Davenport — in reality fellow blacklisted writer Waldo Salt under a pseudonym, working from Baron’s screenplay — and its alternately aggressive, winsome and fatalistic musing plays counterpoint to Frankie’s purposeful movements around the city. While there’s little doubt about Frankie’s commitment to kill Troiano (“a second string syndicate boss with too much ambition”), the layers and ambiguities it adds to Baron’s script are a big part of what makes Frankie such a compelling anti-hero.

Blast of Silence’s other great inspiration isn’t a stroke so much as a tableaux: the streets of New York. There is, simply put, no film before or after Blast of Silence that uses the city as a character better or more knowingly, including the work of Jules Dassin, Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorcese. (Indeed, Taxi Driver is so obviously smitten with Blast of Silence, it’s a bit surprising Brooklyn-native Allen Baron’s rediscovery was so slow to arrive.) The scenes shot in Harlem — where, we learn, Frankie Bono grew up — and the Beat friendly Village Gate are especially well done. Praise is due to both the director of photography, Merrill S. Brody, and camera operator Erich Kollmar for their remarkable location work.

Although done on the hustle — Brody also produced and edited; Carol, his wife, was assistant director; Kollmar plays a bit part as the Bellhop; part of the picture was shot using free test stock from Kodak, etc — Blast of Silence is a first-rate technical achievement. Meyer Kupferman’s modern jazz and classical score deserves special mention. While a soundtrack album was never released — not a huge surprise, as the film itself was given zero promotion by Universal, who picked it up for distribution as a second feature — one would be welcome even today as the perfect entree to Kuperfman’s vast and original sound world.

As ever, Criterion’s DVD is meticulously produced. The film transfer will stun those who loved Blast of Silence when all they had was a grainy yet cherished bootleg tape. Also included is an excellent hour long documentary, Requiem For A Killer: The Making Of Blast of Silence, in which Barron — his sharp Brooklyn accent still intact and youthful — revisits the locations and shares some (but by no means all) of the backstory behind his masterpiece. Lastly, the disc offers two sets of still photographs to click through: The first is a collection of Polaroids taken during the production of Blast of Silence, the second finds 81-year-old Baron on the streets and in the Jamaica Bay wetlands, again, this past winter. Both have aged beautifully.


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