"You were born in pain," a voiceover announces over the black screen that opens writer-director-star Allen Baron's 1961 film Blast Of Silence. "You were born with hate and anger built in," it continues as it becomes clear that this ugly telling of the film's protagonist's birth accompanies a point-of-view shot of a train emerging from a tunnel. "Took a slap on the backside to blast out the scream and then you knew you were alive." That won't be the last time Blast Of Silence draws symbolic power from images shot on the fly, or finds violence embedded in everyday life.
In a role intended for Peter Falk, Baron plays Cleveland hitman Frankie Bono, an orphan who's learned to make a profitable, miserable living as a contract killer. Traveling to New York during the Christmas season, he's charged with taking out a mid-level mobster. Stalking his prey as he goes about his daily routine, Bono gets distracted by an unexpected encounter with a childhood friend whose sister sees him as a lonely man, not the barely human shell he's become.
Working with a miniscule budget, Baron creates charged compositions out of found locations and makes a virtue out of the film's cheapness. The soot and litter almost seem summoned by his character's mental state. Established admirer Martin Scorsese could easily have had it in mind when he made Taxi Driver; Blast Of Silence shares that film's tortured philosophizing. Working under a pseudonym, blacklisted screenwriter Waldo Salt provides the beautifully purple second-person narration that puts viewers in the position of the film's protagonist as he makes his way through a city where death waits at the first sign of weakness. Or tenderness.
Baron's background was in painting, illustration, and the occasional acting job, not filmmaking, but his directorial debut reveals him as a natural behind the camera. As Herk Harvey's brilliant one-off Carnival Of Souls did with horror, Blast Of Silence brings in all the notes of the noir genre, but makes them move to its own rhythm. Using the film as a ticket to Hollywood, Baron might have missed the cheap freedom in his subsequent career directing episodes of The Brady Bunch and Charlie's Angels.
Key features: A 60-minute making-of, with extensive Baron interviews from 1990 and 2006, and a neat partial adaptation by noir-inspired comic-book artist Sean Phillips.