BLAST OF SILENCE (1961)
the big hate
a commentary by Tony McRae

Frankie Bono, a hit man from Cleveland, returns to New York, hired to take care of a "second-string syndicate boss with too much ambition."   He grew up in New York, in an orphanage actually, so who better to eliminate this guy Troiano than an out-of-towner with impeccable credentials who knows this city, knows its dangers.  Who else but Frankie Bono, a born loner who hates everyone.  Hate is his armor.  He's confident but never over sure, depends on himself, no one else.  His hands start to sweat only when he has to make contact with someone, someone like Big Ralphie (Larry Tucker), a local dealer in guns.  Frankie knows how to control the situation.  He always has.

But this is a film noir, so we know it isn't going to be cut and dry.  Frankie is going to have a problem and it'll be his own fault.  

"Blast of Silence" is one of those rare noirs that has a voice-over in the second person.  A gravely voice (Lionel Standers) is a kind of Greek chorus, at once giving Frankie advice while reminding him who he is and why he hates.  In the movie's opening shot we're in blackness (it turns out it's a train tunnel (1) and we're headed to Manhattan); the voice is talking:  "You were born in pain - you were born with hate and anger built in."  The second-person voice is a masterstroke underlining Frankie's increasing ambivalence as he prepares for his job.  The voice gives him advice while telling him - and us - what Frankie is thinking.

Frankie visits Big Ralphie (2), arranges to get a gun with a silencer.  Ralphie says he'll have it tomorrow.  So Frankie has 24 hours to kill.  It's Christmas eve.  He hates Christmas.  In a fascinating montage, he walks the city faceless in the crowd (3-5), thinking of all the suckers who believe in goodwill toward men.  But he can't help remembering other Christmases.  He passes a merry-go-round in a store window.  As he moves out of the frame the camera lingers, holding onto those memories of the past as the music turns nostalgic.  Frankie Bono could be sleepwalking but his past which he's convinced is dead might just rear its ugly head.

As luck would have it he runs into an old acquaintance from the orphanage where he was raised.  Petey (Danny Meehan) had a sister, Lori (Molly McCarthy).  "You don't usually remember names," the voice tells him, "especially women's names.  But Lori.  There was something special there."  Against his better judgment he agrees to go to a party she's giving.  "You know you're making a mistake," the voice tells him.  "But you tell yourself, maybe it's smarter to play it cool...Maybe you're right.  Maybe you're smart.  Maybe you're kidding yourself.  So watch it."  Lori is no femme fatale, at least not in the usual sense of a noir seductress who lures men to their death.  On the contrary, Frankie remembers her as the girl next door type, wholesome, innocent (6), certainly not like the women he pays for.  After the party, when they're alone he makes a pass at her and he's quickly rebuffed.  He apologizes, "Sometimes I just don't know what the hell I'm doing."  That's as open as Frankie every gets.   

Big Ralphie learns who his target is and decides to shake Frankie down.  Frankie is forced to kill him   He's disgusted with himself and does something he's never done before - he phones his contact and asks out of the job.  No way.  They'll give him till New Year's Eve.  If he reneges he knows the consequence.  His actions scare him, make him wonder if he really knows himself.  It's that damn past that's intruding on him:  the orphanage, past Christmases, him and Lori back then.    

He walks the city's waterfront.  His voice is with him:  "For the first time in your life you don't wanna be alone."  He starts thinking about himself in different terms.  He looks at a bridge spanning the water and the voice says, "You could have been an engineer."  He cases the building where his target and his mistress have a love nest and the voice says, "You could have been an architect too."  What's with this guy?  He has the perfect job - he hates people so what better profession for a killer?

He's back on task, feeling good again.  He gets to thinking that maybe God put him here to get rid of people like Troiano.  "This is how it was meant to be...like you are Troiano's fate...like you're God." (7) But even as he goes about his business - casing the Troiano's apartment, oiling his gun (8) - he still can't shake Lori, can't shake his past.  He goes to her apartment, finds her with a man who's obviously spent the night.  So much for hope.

In his hotel room as he's getting ready to kill Troiano, he thinks he's imagining voice that remind him of the orphanage.  He goes to the window.  There's an orphanage right below (9).  He wasn't imagining anything.  The children leave the playground in an orderly manner, but notice how the shot is presented (10).  Does Frankie the adult really think of the orphanage in Nazi terms?

He does the job.  Goes to get his money.  This is noir, so of course he gets the inevitable payoff.  

The last words are those of the voice: "God moves in mysterious ways, they said...maybe he is on your side, the way it all worked out.  Remembering other Christmases, wishing for something, something important, something special.  And this is it, baby boy Frankie Bono.  You're alone now.  All Alone.  The scream is dead.  There's no pain.  You're home again.  Back in the cold, black silence."

"Blast of Silence" was written and directed by Allen Baron who also plays Frank Bono.  He'd tried to get Peter Falk but lost him to a more profitable role in "Murder, Inc." in which he also played a killer.  Though Baron doesn't have Falk's range, his laconic demeanor fits the image of a man whose identity is beginning to vanish.  There's one nice scene which scores the duality that has plagued him since his arrival in New York.  He's had nothing but gripes about Christmas and the orphanage he was forced to attend, but after he leaves Troiano dead in his apartment he passes a nun who is sitting  in front of a store, a goodwill basket on her lap.  Frankie looks over at her, stops, then puts money in the basket (11).  A short time later he is dead.

Buy the Criterion Collection of "Blast of Silence" at DVD Planet or Amazon.

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click stills for larger versions

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