Blast of Silence: An existential wail

                                                                               The original “You talkin’ to me?”

“A hired killer from Cleveland has a job to do on a second-string mob boss in New York. But a special girl from his past, and a fat gun dealer with pet rats, each gets in his way.” – IMDb

Okay, let’s begin:

  • Film noir made for $20,000 in 1961 – about $160,000 today…roughly the cost of Steven Spielberg’s personal supply of Avian water during a typical film shoot
  • Written, directed and starring the same guy (Allen Baron) because the original actor (Peter Falk) bailed out (because he could get a guaranteed pay cheque from another job
  • Cinematographer and producer are the same guy too (Merrill Brody – whose wife was the assistant director!)

                   Like all cult films, it wasn’t set up for success
  • Shot with a rough, choppy, documentary (read: no permit) feel mostly on the streets of New York
  • A jarring, omnipresent narration, spoken in a 3-pack-a-day croak (Lionel Stander – who offered to read the part for $500 anonymously, $1,000 for attribution), that’s either a cynical deus ex machina or a sparse attempt a Freudian analysis

All in all, not encouraging points from which to build a film, let alone a film that has been hailed as a classic. Indeed, it can be found on in the Criterion catalogue – which is generally a sign that you have it made in the shade with Fellini.

The quietest noir there ever was

The secret of Blast of Silence success is imbedded in its very limitations. Few films have turned such obvious weaknesses into commanding strengths.

The documentary feel adds an unexpected but powerful reality to a gritty, smoke-filled netherworld – reinforced by grainy, black and white photography, deep shadows, long takes, and amateur directing stumbles, such as having actors walk toward the camera, finally blocking the frame, for a natural black-out to mark a scene’s end.

The streets of New York are themselves a powerful, menacing character, one that does not offer sanctuary to the desperate, the poor, the unloved. It’s truly a town without pity…and one soon to be discovered by Martin Scorcese and the 1960s.

Where New York City becomes a living character

The jaded narrator – from whatever hell-hole he lives in – emerges to becomes your invisible, somewhat trusty tour guide, encouraging a feeling of mordant, cruel inevitability: some people just have to die grisly deaths. That’s it. It can’t be helped…doll face…

The acting is great in that it closely aligns with – and promotes – the mood: flat delivery conveys verisimilitude and spontaneity. In fact, this is the quietest noir I have ever seen – or heard.

An unrehearsed, hurried, feel to most scenes accelerates the oft-discussed sense of fate that permeates the most sinister aspects of this genre.

Let Blast of Silence find a home on the play list of every film student everywhere. This is how you do it when you have no money, time, or resources. Here we have a jolting conflation of elements that somehow, against all odds, ignites the alchemist’s neon elixir of black gold.