Blast Of Silence.
First and foremost, I must make clear that it blew me away. I'm not the sort of guy who is heavily educated on movies; in fact, I often find that even friends of mine who've only seen an average amount of movies have seen a good deal more than I have. I chalk this up to the fact that, starting when I was very young, I always had my nose buried in a book. I could--and definitely did--listen to a lot of music during the time that I spent reading, but since movies required my full attention, and I was rarely willing to turn away from books (or music, for that matter) in order to devote that attention to them, I didn't see a lot of movies. In the last year or so, I've been trying to make up for lost time, utilizing my brand new Netflix account and my many friends who are willing to loan me movies from their personal collections to engage in a sort of crash course on the entire medium. At this point, I'm gaining familiarity, but much more so with certain niches of the film medium than with movies as a whole. I guess this is because I've already developed specific personal tastes--noir, horror, independent and foreign films, 70s auteur-era "new Hollywood" films, and exploitation movies in general--and therefore I'm trying to see all of the critical touchstones of these genres before I'm willing to fall back on more established classics. For example, I still haven't seen "Gone With The Wind", and I only saw the original "Star Wars" trilogy when I was a little kid; at this point I barely remember anything about it.
Anyway, I say all this to give a disclaimer to my next statement: "Blast Of Silence" is without a doubt the best noir movie I've ever seen. It's also leapfrogged a great many well-loved movies in my mind, and may very well now occupy a space in my top ten favorite movies of all time. I'll need some time to let it sink in before I'll be sure, but it's certainly not the sort of work that grows on you--it immediately, within two minutes of starting, impressed me as an obvious classic. It tells the story of Frankie Bono, a hitman who grew up in an orphanage and has never been comfortable except when he's alone. Bono is played by Allen Baron, who also wrote and directed the film--how's that for an auteur? In the making-of documentary on the DVD, which was filmed 30 years later, Baron explained that he'd done the entire movie for around $18,000. Now, granted, that was probably a lot more money in 1961 than it is now, or even was when Kevin Smith did "Clerks" for around the same amount. Nonetheless, "Blast Of Silence" is an incredible achievement; it would be anyway, but on a budget like that, it's nothing short of miraculous. In fact, in the documentary, Baron mentioned that he'd originally cast Peter Falk in the lead role, but Falk had had a prior commitment (one that was actually going to pay), and at the last minute had to bow out. Baron decided to play Bono for the pragmatic reason that he was going to be there anyway, and it was one less actor he had to pay.
For most of the movie, Baron, in his role as Frankie Bono, is alone onscreen. Sometimes he's walking down the street, and there are people all around him, but he's alone nonetheless. There's very little dialogue in the film--I'd guess that less than a third of the movie features any dialogue at all--but a great deal of the time that would otherwise be silent is filled by voiceover narration. This narration, done by Lionel Stander (not credited in the film because he wanted an extra $500 for the filmmakers to use his name), is delivered throughout in a brutal, misanthropic tone. There's no irony to it, no snarkiness or wit; it's just pure anger and hatred, obviously brought on by alienation. The voiceover is in second person, as if it is the voice of Frankie Bono's innermost thoughts, and we are hearing it speak to him. Based on a lot of the things it says, it becomes obvious that this voice is how Frankie sees himself when he's trying to look at himself in the best possible light. As he gazes upon a bridge, it tells him that he creates murders the way an engineer builds a bridge--and that he could have been an engineer. Later, when contemplating the power he has over men's lives in his occupation as professional killer, it compares him to God.
But Frankie knows that this narrative voice is at least somewhat hyperbolic in nature; he knows that it tells him more what he wants to hear than the truth. Sometimes the voice is speaking in an aggrandizing manner about him, and his disdainful view of the world around him, and we can see by the look on Frankie's face that it doesn't quite convince him. He knows that his alienation, the aloneness that he takes comfort in, is not always the result of his distaste for the rest of humanity. Sometimes he desperately wants to be part of the world he sees around him, and when he does--especially after a certain point in the movie when things start to go wrong for him--it upsets him, throws him off balance.
There's a subplot in the movie about a long-lost romance, one that we're never sure is not just in Frankie's mind. It starts when he runs into someone he knew back in the orphanage. Immediately, he wants to get away from the guy, but he's unable to express his true feelings and be rude to the guy; this in spite of how little patience the voiceover indicates that he has for the rest of humanity. The guy mentions his sister, and Frankie remembers feelings he once had for said sister. This is enough to lead to Frankie's being dragged along to a Christmas Eve party at said sister's apartment. Oh yeah, as if so many other circumstances in this movie aren't soul-crushing enough, it all takes place in the few days around Christmas. Frankie is glad to see his old friend's sister--Lori--but feels uncomfortable at the party, stumbling out shortly after. His discomfort throws him off-balance, and leads him to make a mistake that will have far-reaching ramifications. Initially, it leads him back to Lori's apartment, where his fumblings with the mechanics of social interaction are only made worse by virtue of their taking place one-on-one with a woman he has feelings for. Leaving Lori's place, he's feeling even worse than he was when he got there.
I don't really want to go through any more of the plot with you. To some extent, I feel I've said too much already. On the other hand, none of this description can really do the film justice. You have to watch it to understand the bleakness, the alienation, the loneliness, and the frustration the character of Frankie Bono feels in his day to day life. He's obviously scarred by his emotional separation from the people he sees around him every day, and even though he only feels safe when he's alone, there are times when his actions and even his thoughts betray him, and make clear that what he really wants is someone to feel comfortable with, some kind of sense that he belongs somewhere in the world. This is a big part of why I felt so drawn to this movie--it very accurately portrays a mix of emotions I myself feel a lot of the time. On one hand, I feel alienated from the world around me, mostly because of just how shallow and fucked-up and stupid it all seems. On the other hand, I feel desperately alone a lot of the time, and I often wish for someplace in the world I can feel comfortable. Even amongst my closest friends, I often feel out of place, and I can generally only feel safe when I'm alone. But I don't want to spend my life alone.
I may not be a professional killer, and I may not have grown up in an orphanage. But in a lot of ways, I am Frankie Bono.
My favorite shot in "Blast Of Silence" is one that comes a little more than halfway through the film. I learned from the documentary that it was shot on 34th street in Manhattan, on a downward-sloping block that is now tree-lined. The effect achieved in the shot would be impossible to create now. So thank God the film was shot back then, because it's a truly moving shot. As it begins, it's dusk--almost full dark, but not quite. The camera is pointing up the slope of the block, framing the sidewalk, which at first is empty. Then after a second, we see Frankie Bono, coming over the hill and walking slowly down the block. At first, he's so far away that he's only distinguishable from the background by his silhouette. As he draws closer and closer to the camera, his features become more and more distinguishable. But throughout the shot, he's alone. No one comes near him. After more than a minute, he reaches the camera and the shot ends. But during that lengthy, sustained shot of Frankie Bono walking by himself down a deserted sidewalk in New York, at dusk on Christmas day, the despair is palpable. It's a shot that sums up the emotional effect of the film as a whole.
Here are a couple of youtube clips:
This is the theatrical trailer--a segment of the deserted-sidewalk scene described above makes up the last 10 seconds or so (though it's mostly covered by titles).
This is a short scene from early in the movie, which contains Lionel Stander's voiceover narration and does a good job of demonstrating the spiteful wording and the hateful tone in which it's delivered.
P.S.--I've been listening to Quicksand and Every Time I Die a lot lately. Perhaps there will be blog entries on them in the near future. If my mentioning such a thing didn't just jinx it, that is.