Blast of Silence (1961)

This is one of seven "Holiday Noir" movies streamed by Criterion this month. A few of the movies they included aren't exactly what I'd call "Christmas movies" (not that Criterion promised they would be), but Blast of Silence passes my litmus test with flying colors (or in this case, flying black and white). The entirety of the film plays out during the holiday season, starting a few days before Christmas and ending on or around New Year's.

The movie's "noir" credentials are a bit more complicated. Technically, this falls outside the window of what generally qualifies - Wikipedia identifies it as "neo-noir," which seems a more accurate designation. Essentially, this acts as a bridge between the dark melodramas of the '40s and '50s we now call noir and the gangster epics that would become popular over the next few decades. At least on the surface, this is a focused, contained crime story built around a single character.

The movie's story is fairly barebones. It follows a hitman named Frank, returning to his hometown of New York for a job. He trails the mark, acquires a gun, kills a criminal acquaintance who attempts to blackmail him, assaults a woman he'd known when he was younger, completes his assignment, then is eventually killed by his employers, presumably because he tried backing out of the deal earlier.

None of that's all that important, however, because Blast of Silence is more about style and point-of-view than plot. The most striking aspect of this is the film's narration, which takes the unusual approach of talking in the second person. The story is quite literally being narrated to Frank, who functions as a sort of audience surrogate. It's going for a similar effect to what Lady in the Lake (also included in Criterion's collection this year) was working towards, albeit in a very different way. While that film was shot from a first-person perspective, this features relatively straightforward camera shots, with added context via narration.

I should note the narration wasn't originally part of the movie, but rather was added later. That's not too surprising: it doesn't tell us much about the story that can't be gleaned from what's on screen. What it does do is put us in Frank's shoes. It also contextualizes what's happening within existential and psychoanalytic ideas. The first shot we're shown is a point-of-view shot from the perspective of a train emerging from a tunnel, and the narration compares this to the experience of being born. We're told Frank (or alternatively that we the audience) has chosen a life of loneliness, and further that we desire that feeling.

...And that brings us back to the holidays. Throughout the film, we're periodically shown and told that Frank is remembering (or sometimes trying not to remember) Christmases past, as well as something he's wanted. It's not until the end when Frank is shot dead and lying in the mud that the movie assures us he has - or again, that we have - found what we want: a return to the silent, peaceful darkness we remember from before we were born.

Essentially, the narration is leveraging the tradition of holiday nostalgia (a popular theme in Christmas music, movies, and other media following World War 2) in order to explore the idea that humanity is seeking a sort of primal peace we knew before birth. Whether you want to view this through a religious lens (the movie evokes God a few times) or a more general search for nihilism is up to interpretation. Either way, it's pretty bleak.

But then so is the framing of the holiday. We see Frank moving past New York's Christmas decorations, which are muted in the black-and-white footage. It's all shot to feel hollow and empty. Onlookers gathered to gaze at the lights are oblivious to the killer in their midst, which is of course the point.

I should note the onlookers were almost certainly literally oblivious. Even before confirming on Wikipedia, it was pretty obvious to me this was being shot without a permit - seeing the lead on busy New York sidewalks at Christmas time being filmed from what's clearly a moving car is a good indication this didn't go through the usual channels. Right or wrong, the effect makes for unusually realistic and natural sequences.

Speaking of behind the scenes... If you've got time, the Wikipedia article on this has some bonkers details about how Blast of Silence was financed and produced. We're talking about smuggling film equipment out of Cuba stuff - I want a movie about writer, director, and star Allen Baron's experiences making this thing. Plus, the narration was written and delivered by Waldo Salt and Lionel Stander respectively, both under fake names due to being blacklisted by the House on Unamerican Activities Committee.

The holidays also play into the story in a couple ways. First and most importantly, they seem to leave Frank a bit unstable, which in turn leads to the aforementioned assault. After he misinterprets a woman's seeming interest in his life as romantic, he forcibly (and violently) kisses her. She fights him off, and he gets hold of himself. She insists she forgives him and advises him to find companionship, which he mistakes as implying a desire to be that companion. Later, following a period of reflection similar to what you'd expect in a holiday romance, he approaches her at her apartment to ask her to run away with him. But of course, she was just giving him advice, a fact that becomes obvious when Frank finds her boyfriend home, as well.

The holidays also play into the way the story plays out. Frank exploits his target going to see his mistress for the holidays to carry out the hit. He's also given a strict deadline to carry out the assignment by New Year's, which also seems to be around the time Frank himself is gunned down. In that respect, this also seems to be playing with the idea that this is a time for death and rebirth, or in this case maybe just death.

Blast of Silence offers a great deal to think about and even more for those of us bizarrely fascinated with how holidays appear in media. For those just looking for an enjoyable movie, it's a little harder to say. This is a solid crime story, with real tension and some dark ideas, but the pacing does drag at times. That's clearly a choice - the movie is playing with the way time seems to slow at the holidays. In Bruges does something very similar, but that's got a lot more whimsy and dark comedy to hold your attention. I do think Blast of Silence is well enough made to make it worthwhile to fans of crime stories from the era, but it's not something most people should rush out to find.