It’s safe to say The Criterion Collection knows how to bring us cinephiles the very best editions of the world’s classics: the boutique label is the go-to for definitive editions of acknowledged masterpieces from Godard, Lang, Varda, Bergman, Ray, Ackerman, Welles, and hundreds of others. Fortunately, the Collection devotes equal time and effort to uncovering cinema’s lost treasures as well, those films that for one reason or another time and history simply overlooked. Newly updated this month on a 4K digital Blu-ray restoration, Allen Baron’s scarcely-known film noir Blast of Silence (1961) is exactly one of those: this killer’s Christmas makes for a taut, methodical, and inexorable march towards a dark doom.
Director, writer, and lead actor Allen Baron is probably more recognized as a longtime television director than he is renowned for his work in film. He made Blast of Silence and just two other films, one in 1964 and the other decades later. Blast of Silence was something of a work of chutzpah for the New York-born visual artist. Inspired by a visit to a Paramount sound stage on a vacation to Los Angeles, he decided then and there to make a film, this film, no matter that he’d had none of the requisite training or experience to do so.
Baron didn’t have any money and he didn’t have any experience. He’d hoped to hire his friend Peter Falk, then unknown, for the lead, but when Falk scored a real gig, Baron couldn’t afford to pay him. So, Baron decided to play the lead role himself, despite never having acted before. He cast his family and friends and smuggled used gear from Cuba for the 22-day shoot, most of which took place without permits and the final scene filmed during a rare New York hurricane. Baron drew mostly on his experience as a visual artist to imagine what he wanted specific shots in the film to look like. Astonishingly, as is just occasionally the case in cinema, his instincts and choices made perfect sense for a low-budget street noir in which the city he grew up in would feature as significantly as any character or plot event.
Baron’s Frank Bono is a hitman on assignment in New York City with a simple assignment: execute a hit on mobster Troiano (Peter H. Clune). His methods are direct and straightforward, as is the film’s plot. Blast of Silence doesn’t borrow the labyrinthine structures of noir narratives like The Killers, but keeps things on a metronomic, methodical pace, its script pacing out events like the steady footfalls of its protagonist on the prowl. There are a few slight detours, including an encounter with a former girlfriend (Lori, played by Molly McCarty) that almost humanizes the hitman, and another with gun runner and third-tier fixer “Big Ralph” (Larry Tucker) on the way to the main target. (That latter, in the seedy apartment Ralph shares with his pet vermin, makes for a stunning set piece when the killer comes to call.)
Along the way, the always-raspy Lionel Stander narrates, in the second person (a real rarity in film), employing the hardboiled style of a Raymond Chandler or Horace McCoy to flesh out Frank’s character. (Both Stander, and Waldo Salt, who wrote the narrative passages, were blacklisted and uncredited). Baron may have conceived of Blast of Silence without any real experience or credentials, but he made a near-perfect little frigid noir for the holiday season, his New York settings lending the film a gritty verisimilitude and his own unassuming performance keeping the narrative on a steady keel.
At least, that is, until Frank’s conscience, triggered by his past relationships, racial animus (the character’s white anxiety is on full display in one brief, if convincing scene), and recent encounters, sows some self-doubt. There’s where the narration, so often a staple of film noir, has its greatest effect, and as Frank looks to conclude his hit and earn his payday, a freak storm whips the climax into a wild, wet, wintry frenzy.
Criterion first released Blast of Silence on DVD back in 2008 (Spine #428). That disc has been out of print for some time, and while new features are scarce on the current Blu-ray, this new edition features a new 4K digital restoration presented in two aspect ratios, 1.85:1 (widescreen) and 1.33:1 (full-screen). Both look sublime, with the full-screen version appearing slightly sharper; an uncompressed monaural soundtrack accompanies both.
Aside from the restoration itself, presented as it is in two aspect ratios, there’s nothing new to Criterion’s packaging for this Blu-ray edition, and while there is sadly still no commentary track (c’mon, Criterion, scholars and writers would line up for this gig!), a solid making-of documentary provides a thorough background to the film’s conception, production, and reception. Each of the edition’s special features appeared on the 2008 DVD, and the jewel case packaging and artwork are identical.
Requiem for a Killer: The Making of Blast of Silence. This hourlong documentary, featuring content from two interviews with Baron and a walkthrough of some of his New York shooting locations, was made for the 2008 DVD. While one might quibble with its technical merits (or lack thereof), its content– guiding the viewer through Baron’s background and the film’s making– makes for an excellent primer on Blast of Silence.
Also included on the Blu-ray special edition are two slideshow features– one of rare on-set Polaroids from the shoot, the other with the film’s locations shot in 2008 as Baron revisited them, both contextualized with onscreen captions– as well as the film’s release trailer, the earlier essay by critic Terrence Rafferty, and a brief graphic novel-esque adaptation of the film by Sean Phillips.
Phillips’ comic is just four pages long, but it’s a stunner, re-imagining Blast of Silence as a sequential drawing that—had comics like these existed then—might have been the film’s source material. But since Baron came to film from his work in visual arts and directed Blast of Silence from his knowledge of still images, this little exercise makes for an integral element in the process of making film from a script; each panel is like its own storyboard, only engineered in reverse from the extant film. One is hard pressed not to wish for a full 60 pages chronicling the film in its entirety.
For those who’d already scored the 2008 Criterion DVD, it’s hard to say that the Blu-ray is inarguably worth the upgrade. What you’ll get that’s new is the restoration, and for many that may be enough. Anyone new to the title—it’s one that largely falls outside most of the scholarly discourse on film noir and aside from Criterion’s release has never garnered great attention, despite its excellence—is going to have, shall we say, a blast with this cold, bleak, hitman’s holiday of a film.
Who knows, Blast of Silence might just replace Die Hard as your very favorite Christmas film.