Blast of Silence (1961), Dir: Allen Baron, Criterion Collection
A 1961 no-budget indie post-noir, directed by and starring the potato-faced Allen Baron, Blast is clumsily acted and presented in a visual language not much above home movies. The unintentionally comic violent sequences, stilted dialogue (by Waldo Salt, who later won an Oscar for adapting Midnight Cowboy), and cough-syrup pacing distances the viewer even further, until wonder at the film’s very existence becomes the primary response. Yet for students of noir or of the roots of NY indie film-making, Blast is a touchstone (and no great chore; it’s only 77 minutes). Blast’s key redeeming feature, a shockingly bleak – even for noir – view of life and fate, emerges not from the plot, but instead from the non-stop voice-over narration of gravel-voiced character actor Lionel Stander.
While Baron has no clue how to stage or direct people talking, walking, driving, fighting, kissing or smoking in dingy hotel rooms, two or three grand visual metaphors demonstrate what he might have achieved if only he’d had more dough. The picture opens with the camera moving at great speed through blackness towards a distant tiny dot of light. As the light grows and grows, Stander recites in second person a litany of the reasons ‘you’ wished you’d never been born. But too late, Stander says, as the light blossoms, you were hurled against your will into this awful world! Boom—the light becomes the end of a subway tunnel and New York City, in all its cloudy-day glory looms, promising only futility.
Baron’s a hit man consumed by depression and alienation (and a cripplingly adenoidal monotone for a leading man). He shadow-walks through in the underbelly of the city, which he loathes, to do his dirty work. He tries to connect to normal folks, but why would they give the time of day – never mind love or kindness—to such a maladjusted little worm? In the classic noir (or country music) trope, it’s Baron’s very self-disgust that grants him the tiny humanity he possesses. In the film’s most convincing scenes (save two or three moments of visual narrative genius that can’t be described without ruining what suspense there is), Baron hondles with Big Ralph (Larry Tucker, known for his psycho turn in Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor), a morbidly obese small-timer even more loathsome than Baron. Yet Big Ralph, for all his greasy mannerisms and pet rats, functions in the urban jungle with a charm and efficiency Baron could never summon. As the porky loser thrives, Baron watches with a piquant, burning resentment.
Bereft of companionship, affection, self-respect or even professional pride, Baron’s come to the big city for only one purpose, really, the true raison d’être of all noir heroes: obliteration. And when blessed nothingness is attained, Baron the director finds a visual apotheosis so striking and memorable it renders all his preceding incompetence irrelevant.
ContributorDavid N. Meyer
David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.