Blu-ray Review: Blast of Silence

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Allen Baron | CAST: Allen Baron, Molly McCarthy, Larry Tucker, Peter Clune, Danny Meehan, Howard Mann, Charles Creasap
RELEASE DATE: 12/5/23 | PRICE: Blu-ray $27.99
BONUSES:  Making-of documentary “Requiem for a Killer”; rare on-set Polaroids; and photos of locations from the film in 2008
SPECS: NR |  77 min. | Crime/Film Noir | 1:85/1:33 | monaural |

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

In his 1972 article “Notes on Film Noir,” Paul Schrader called noir a “cycle” and not a genre or subgenre. He also declared that it ended in 1955 with The Big Combo and Kiss Me Deadly; the “epitaph” for the cycle, he claimed, was Touch of Evil (’58). This particular end-date neglects certain “last-minute noirs” that are good as many of their predecessors, including Murder by Contract (’58), Odds Against Tomorrow (’59), and this low-budget crime thriller, shot in 1959-60 and released in ’61.

Blast of Silence has been a fan-favorite for several decades now, and it stands as a perfect “last noir” because of its compact structure, its hardboiled dialogue and narration, and its pitch-black visuals — not forgetting its quick and nasty finale. It was made on a shoestring budget by its writer-director-star Allen Baron and it has all of the power of the best B-movies, with its antihero moving through a grim landscape and  its tension erupting into violence every so often.

The plot concerns a hitman “out of Cleveland” (Baron) who has journeyed to Manhattan with an assignment: to kill a rich, influential gangster. He faces various obstacles in the few days he spends in NYC preparing for the hit, but none is greater than the physical reminder of one of the only happy periods in his younger years, namely the sister of a friend who he grew up with. He is vulnerable and human only in her company; the rest of the time he is a calculating, steely-eyed killer. He wants to drop the assignment and return the money, but, as every crime-movie (and crime-novel) fan knows, there is no return possible for a hood doing a “last job.”

Of the three hats he wore on the project, Baron was only substandard as an actor — this is most apparent when he’s playing opposite a seasoned character actor like Larry Tucker (the future cowriter of Paul Mazursky’s first films and an overwhelming presence in Fuller’s Shock Corridor). But even the occasional flat note struck by Baron as a performer can’t mitigate the master strokes he delivered as a director and scripter.

For Blast has a number of distinctions, including the fact that it is a “Christmas noir.” Baron shot the film during the Xmas season in Manhattan and so his hitman walks through Rockefeller Center urging himself to “lose yourself in the Christmas spirit, with all the other suckers!” Whenever he’s outdoors, our antihero has such a grim demeanor (and is so hyper-aware of what’s going on around him) that he seems to be even grimmer during the segment of the film where he walks past the gayly festive store windows and Xmas decorations around midtown.

Allen Baron in Blast of Silence (1961)

When he’s indoors he’s either vulnerable to his past (and harboring doubts about his present) or rigid with other crooks (like Tucker’s sleazy gun salesman). The milieu he inhabits during his nighttime travels in lower Manhattan is all filled with jazz and a certain “loose” atmosphere that also makes Blast a suitable “noir for the Beat era.” It’s not ridiculously kitschy, like Albert Zugsmith’s beat-sploitation pics, but uses that milieu (including shots of the real Village Gate) as a great backdrop for our antihero’s “last” foray into shadowing and eliminating a target. Meyer Kupferman’s suitably jazzy soundtrack for the film adds to this ambience.

D.P. Merrill Brody’s visuals for the films are moody and wonderfully composed — we often follow Baron as he walks down NYC streets, with the shots clearly having been filmed from a nearby vehicle (in the French New Wave style). But the real “secret weapon” of the film is its confrontational narration.

Written by blacklisted writer Waldo Salt under a pseudonym, the narration crackles with memorably hard-boiled remarks addressed to the hitman (mockingly referred to as “baby boy Frankie Bono” by the interior narration). It is written in the second person, which is extremely rare in the world of film (where the literary precedent of either first- or third-person narration holds sway). And it is delivered beautifully by the uncredited Lionel Stander, who always sounded like he had just gargled with razor blades. His tough-as-nails delivery also has a darkly humorous side to it, lending Blast a wonderfully “knowing” air, as if Frankie Bono’s interior narration is clueing us into the fact that Frankie won’t live to see another Christmas.

The supplemental materials that appear in this package were all included in the now out-of-print 2008 DVD release of the film from Criterion. The one exception is a 1.85 version of the film, duplicating the way audiences saw it back in 1961, when it was released as a “B” feature by Universal. The 1.33 version (also included here) was the director’s preference for prints of the film struck in the 1990s, when Blast was rediscovered and played at film festivals.

Much emphasis is put on the film’s NYC locations in the onscreen supplements. This makes perfect sense, but an equally important aspect of the film’s creation, the incredibly memorable narration, written by blacklisted scripter (turned later Oscar winner) Waldo Salt, goes unmentioned. Salt’s invaluable contribution is acknowledged only in the booklet essay penned by Terrence Rafferty.

Pictures of Baron in the different locations taken in 2008 are included as one supplement, while the longest extra, the documentary “Requiem for a Killer” by Wilfried Reichart and Robert Fischer, also finds Baron in the various locations, telling stories from his own past and about the film.

Some of the stories about his background explain the film’s stark visuals, as Baron started out as a painter and worked as a comic book artist in the 1950s. Others directly address memorable aspects of the production, including the fact that Baron nearly had Peter Falk starring as Frankie Bono. (Falk chose to do Murder, Inc. instead.)

Also, Baron notes that Lionel Stander (who had also been blacklisted) made an offer to the cash-strapped filmmaker: he would do the narration for 500 dollars, but if he was paid an additional 500 dollars they could use Stander’s name to sell the film. Baron chose the former, as he made the film on a  very small budget (slightly over $20,000).

The most curious fact Baron imparts is that he himself plays one of the killers who slays his onscreen alter-ego. This happened, he says, because one of the actors wasn’t available on the day of the shoot. The oddest thing, though, is that two men are seen pursuing Baron in the same frame as him, but then when the actual shots are fired, the viewer can see that Baron is indeed playing one of the hitman’s hitmen, making the finale even more existential.

Buy or Rent Blast of Silence

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”