Blast of Silence is a film that seems to operate as a sort of death by one-thousand cuts executed by hands from two distinct bodies. One cutting hand is the tinsel glinting knife of the “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” flavor of holiday film. Fitting that a Christmas hurricane hit New York as director/writer/lead actor Allen Baron was shooting his film there in the winter of 1960. Traffic jams, turnpikes, bumping into old friends, old flames, a house party of twenty-year-olds and someone brought and is playing bongos. A natural disaster.
The other cutting hand is the lugubrious, overripe nihilism of noir. “Lugubrious” here applies to the noir genre in general; but applies in particular to Blast of Silence, a film which blasts you over the head from the instant the second person voice-over narration arrives, which is about thirty-eight seconds after you hit play on your BOS criterion edition DVD. Second person voice over narration? What is this? Harlem, Mon Amour? The courtesy that modern chain cinema extended to viewers of a recent offering of the Star Wars franchise, that is, the courtesy of informing patrons via large white sandwich boards in the theater corridors to “be not afraid, for there is a section of this film that is intentionally devoid of sound for artistic effect for approximately ninety seconds at approximately ninety minutes into the film”; I too wish to offer to you. I would like to warn you that from minute one to minute zero, BOS assaults you with a bourbon boiled leather windpipe, an eternal narrator that quickly replaces the tunnel in the opening sequence as the all-encompassing tar black hell that must at all costs be escaped from before you turn into it or lose the ability to differentiate between the you and it.
“Overripe” because the film was made in 1960, an orphan in time. Too late for the studio treatment or even a respectable RKO B film release roster; and around six years too early for New Hollywood. And let’s face it this is no New Hollywood movie. The film in its content and in its form is an orphan, with only vague physiological coincidences to other films which it can only pass by on the street; perhaps it is only convincingly similar to Irving Lerner’s Murder by Contract.
Blast of Silence exists amidst these two cutting hands which are the poles the film exists by and between. Between holiday and noir. But it is not some hybrid oh so vile. It is a dyed-in-the-tarpit noir. But how? My theory here, call it Tom’s Corollary maybe, is that noir acts much like, oh pardon I must be crass here, a drop of shit in a vat of wine. It affects the wine irreversibly, no matter how small the inclusion. So please accept the recursive mystery of this film which is a noir but stands with one foot in noir and one foot in the holiday commuter film. It is a noir that is infected by a dash of Christmas if you like to think of it that way.
And the infection of Christmas does not take hold, surprising no one at all. Noir films, of course, resist becoming “a holiday tradition”; but immediately I can see some straight A student, no several of them, shooting their hands straight up in the air to tell me that their dad works at a big four masseuse firm and that every year since they were five they’ve watched The Girl Hunters with their milk and gingerbread. Oh, your father was Mickey Spillane, I see. OK, that’s great, get out of my essay. Try and get your, or better yet, my, beloved but well-to-do aunt to put on Shock Corridor or City of Fear on Christmas Morning and you will see what I mean. Noir films are, themselves, recursions of the loner deeper into loneliness. Shut up about the noir festivals that don’t matter, put your hand down. Noir depicts the antisocial and creates the antisocial. Noir films don’t eat seconds at the table and only speak when spoken to. Films to be watched alone by the alone to be made more alone. Consider the absurd politics of trying to force your family, like Frankie Bono on the couch stupidly force-kissing his high school crush, to watch some moody 40’s flick. It makes the juxtaposition of tones all the more absurd in the case of BOS, with its kiss by force between a holiday film that is being grabbed by a noir. The darker genres will always curl deeper away into themselves upon rejection, and instead of the film playing behind his eyes, you can easily imagine Frankie putting on, oh I dunno, a Codeine album at his high school friends xmas party or brandishing a pirated copy of his own movie, of Blast of Silence, and forcing them all to watch, like the off-putting home movie revelations of Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom. Put your hand down in the front!
But on to the poles. As all good noirs ought to be, BOS exists in the thrall of two poles that it must traverse. Some more stratified, classic examples of these traversals would be the Double Indemnity noir form where a femme fatale exists between pure down-and-out disrepute and middle-class respectability and then leads a man from the latter to the former. Or the Spade/Marlowe detective noir form where the detective stands Hermes-like between the lawful force of the police and the lawless violence of the criminal and he traverses both as he pleases, usually trying and failing to guide a female up.
Blast of Silence as a film stands between the holiday film and the noir. To justify this special boarding pass a special role is warranted in the vein of the femme fatale or the private dick; so our hero, Frankie Bono, is deemed an orphan. And as an orphan he can only partially partake in the pure connectivity of family and Christmas; and on the other hand he is never really truly alone; he is never really the perfect orphan as he would like to be. Just as the film tilts towards noir on the scales, so too Frankie tips towards solitude. He describes his life and world in terms of how close he is to being alone, or how close other life forms are to his loneliness. Talking with someone is a minute or maybe two until he is alone; his hit sneaking away from his family to see his mistress is “almost alone” and so on and so on. This is the loneliest noir ever made and I would further argue that this is in part because Blast of Silence was a film written by, directed by, and starring, one man; Allen Baron. It is practically a solo flight, and I’m surprised Baron didn’t somehow manage to act all his scenes while also holding the camera like Robert Montgomery did in Lady of the Lake.
Read Durkheim’s theory of the taboo or Mulvey or whatever. Just don’t ask me to do a close reading. You get it. It is not a long formula. He has a foot in two camps so he can traverse both camps but he is not fully welcome in either or at home in either. And only other mutts can evaluate his problem. Watch the film and make it worse on Frankie and on yourself! Again the film curls back into the self! It seems only the wartime bard, the hep club bongo singer-songwriter, sightless as Odysseus’ bard, he seems to be the only one able to understand that Frankie is in the movie Blast of Silence. Just like only Mark Lewis realizes that he is in the movie Peeping Tom. Only the bard, not played but lived by Dean Sheldon. The songs are credited to Dean himself, and from what I can tell he played bongos in some short-lived Broadway productions and that is about all. He may as well be Homer. Or maybe you can choose to notice here an instance of a noir trope I am noticing more and more in my old age; the dream of the antisocial noir protagonist to become a bridge builder. The wish is in Blast of Silence, Edward Dmytryk’s The Sniper, and many others. You get it.
But it is a holiday film too, isn’t it? Notice how the film has the extended form of a visit home for the holidays: the cheap hotel that is a necessary insult to you and your kin, then a predesignated family rep meets you there, you follow them somewhere keeping close but not too close, then the by day two or so reluctant but then addictive peace of passing time by taking walks at the mall, the neighborhood, the plaza, down the street, the hallway of your childhood home’s second floor, the luxury plaza thirty-seven minutes away, the church, then the throat gets dry, the drink, then the approach of the townie Elpinor approaching and drinking the blood, then the now where did you disappear to and how’s the job hunt going etc, the would making a move on an old flame be advisable because your worth in their eyes has gained interest over time or has your position increased merely because the memory of your old self has deteriorated in their mind and the seduction of the possibly new arrives, forget all that for now, grow accustomed to the quaint local customs, cut a rug, eggnog pre-mixed, Xmas comes and goes, oh well why not just stay on till new years eve, and then the new year…hmm…maybe I was wrong. Maybe a drop of the holidays can taint noir for the better! Lose yourself in the Christmas spirit with the rest of the suckers! Merry Christmas, class! You are dismissed early! Out into the silence! Careful on the roads! Careful with the tinsel!
— Tom Will is the poetry editor of APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL, and author of You, the Viewer at Home, Moon, via Maximus Books