Thursday, February 25, 2010

[flicker] Blast of Silence

A fully-loaded .38 can go off 6 times. All fatal, depending of course, on the hand that wields it. The seventh time it inevitably gives a harmless little click. Now it’s just a cigarette lighter run out of fuel. Just a kid’s toy that looks like a .38. Lokhand ka Paperweight. ‘Click’ goes the hollow cylinder. The gun did not hush up; it did not so much as go quiet. It plain ran out of bullets. The seventh pull of the trigger is mere silence. Nothing to come from, nowhere to go.

“The streets were dark with something more than night”
- Raymond Chandler, Introduction to ‘The Simple Art of Murder’

Allen Baron’s highway-to-hell noir ‘Blast of Silence’ opens straight into pitch darkness and turbulence. It’s a train making its way through a tunnel. The narrator kicks in- a sarcastic and weary god. A god who himself seems to have lost faith. He offers no solace, no catharsis and doesn’t remember the last time he attempted a miracle. After all, given the state of his glorious creation, how long could he have deluded himself. It’s a goddamn racket and these days he just runs the numbers and sets up the odds and waits and watches. A brief, bleak monologue, one which would do Raymond Chandler proud, describes the birth of our protagonist Baby Face Frankie Bono as the train tunnels into light. The odds have been given. There’s going to be no pay-off on this one.

The relentless, omnipresent narrator is at a jazz and cheap whiskey equation with the visuals, more Pull My Daisy than Morgan Freeman. Penned by Hollywood blacklistee Waldo Salt who would later etch the grit and grime of the streets of New York into ‘Midnight Cowboy’ and delivered with rough-hewn, expressive gusto by fellow blacklistee and great character actor Lionel Stander, the narration puts you square into the sharp shoes of Frankie Bono and if it fits too tight, there just ain’t no wriggle room for your toe. Unlike the alienating, non-sequitor even playful voice-overs of the French New Wave noirs, this one’s primed for the gut and you can just feel it. The biting cold of a New York winter, the desperation, the sweaty palms, the nerve-wracking tension, the essential loneliness that has marked and scarred Frankie Bono but one that bred his instinct to survive.

The tropes of the tale are spare and simple. After all, nothing too original about a hitman who comes into the city on contract to carry out a hit. But as the story plays out, it’s pure process. Arrive in the city. Check into a hotel. Meet your contact. Shop for your tools. Follow your mark. Kill time. Wander. Wander. Wander. Pick up the merchandise. And now we’re ready for the execution. Films like ‘Collateral’ are too mired in the racket and the conventions of Hollywood to ever look at anything essential square in the eye. ‘Blast of Silence’, one of the first independent American productions, a contemporary of John Cassavetes’ ‘Shadows’, offers an unflinching stare that brings in the burn. Frankie Bono’s isolation and detachment is no ‘be cool’, neither can it afford to be something as a warm and righteous as a ‘code of conduct’ a la Melville. Circumstances, society, what makes the world tick- a man simply cannot afford to be anything other than a cold, calculating machine. Frankie Bono’s greatest enemy is himself, his desires, that part of him that qualifies as human. It stands in the way of his efficiency. It is a weakness, it could make him irrelevant, as irrelevant as a corpse.

Even at a purely visual level, the movie is sensational. From the rolling thunder opening to Frankie Bono memorably stepping out of the train and lighting a cigarette to the ferry ride that I’m pretty sure inspired the ending of Jarmusch’s ‘Permanent Vacation’ to the Christmas time pageantries to the… hell, every goddamn scene is about as seminal as it gets. Baron is coming to the film from a career as a comic book illustrator and he knows how to deliver with every inch of the frame. Among all the stand-out scenes, the one that bleeds the most is the montage set in the club as Frankie Bono observes his mark celebrate his birthday. A singer on a bongo belts a song of murder and torrid towns, the scenes swings vertiginous, cutting from table to band to table, a maddening daze, hallucinatory and existential, it is ‘The Scream’ or as the narrator puts it ‘makes my stomach turn’. Yet another scene catches Frankie cooling off after an upheaval, quietly cleaning his gun, preparing for the hit. It’s a Hitman’s saxophone solo. And then comes the grand finale, shot in a hurricane. ‘Blast of Silence’ is inspired film-making operating at all the right keys. It works consecutively on so many levels that even at a lean, mean 77minutes it is nothing less than an epic.

The soundtrack is brilliant. A mix of hard street jazz and ethereal Christmas choirs that serves to bring out the chill that is the city and the soul. The cinematography by Merrill Brody does to old New York what ‘Vertigo’ did to old San Fransisco. And not surprisingly there does seem to be a small cult that visits the New York locations of the film just like the Vertigo-philes swarm SF. And while ‘Vertigo’ may seem to bloom with the romantic, ‘Blast of Silence’ keeps it coming cheap and fast.

On the eve of the film’s release Director Allen Baron was touted as the next Orson Welles. But as Baron shrugs and admits, it never came to be. Hollywood was never for him but he got suckered. But when one looks at Citizen Kane which looked at the American Dream from top down and Blast of Silence that looks at the American Nightmare from bottom up, one can’t help but be reminded of what Thomas Pynchon wrote- that America is made up of three things and three things only- blood, shit and money. Even for a genre as hard-boiled as noir, Baron’s film looks into the mouth of hell with such casual lack of humanity and hope that realms of meaning and chaos swirl into nothing less than the insane, aka the Herzogian.

‘Blast of Silence’ never holds back and keeps packing the punches, keeps them coming, keeps running and before you know it, you have a corpse on your hand. Shouldn’t be too hard to leave it alone, shouldn’t be hard to walk away from it all. After all, even God shows the other cheek.

(Cross-posted at

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