Great Moments in Cinema: Blast of Silence

For most people, Christmas is a time for togetherness, a time to connect with friends and family, and bask in the warm glow of love, peace and friendship.  For others, however, Christmas is just another painful reminder of how alone they truly are, and the holiday becomes a sort of existential nightmare for these poor folks who have nothing better to do than dwell on the fact that they have no one to share it with.  Such is the case with “Baby Boy” Frankie Bono, the lead character in writer/director/star Allen Baron’s low budget noir masterpiece, Blast of Silence (1961).

Frank Bono (Baron) is a ruthless hit man from Jersey, who is dispatched to New York to track down and kill a man named Troiano (Peter Clune), a second string mob boss who has gotten a bit too big for his britches.  In need of a weapon, Frankie reluctantly visits with Big Ralph (played by the great and totally underrated character actor, Larry Tucker), an obese slob of a man whose only friends are the numerous rats he keeps as pets in his dingy little apartment.  After his meeting with Big Ralph, Frankie walks the streets of New York alone, so lost in his own thoughts that he completely ignores the garish Christmas decorations that adorn every window of every department store.  Along the way, Frankie runs into Petey (Danny Meehan), an old friend from his days in the orphanage.  Petey tries to convince Frankie to come to a Christmas party, but Frankie declines, preferring loneliness to the company of drunken strangers.  However, when Petey reveals that the party is being thrown by his sister, Lori (Molly McCarthy), Frankie readily agrees, as he has been harboring a crush on her ever since they were kids.  Unfortunately, Lori already has someone in her life, and soon enough, Frankie is back on the job, tracking down Troiano with renewed purpose.  What Frankie doesn’t know, however, is that he is also being stalked.  Death is constantly nipping at his heels, and he’s not going to be able to outrun it forever.  As Frankie closes in on Troiano, only one question remains: will this prove to be his last job?

For most of its running time, Blast of Silence is a quiet, introspective, almost serene film.  It’s more concerned with shining a light on the loneliness of a man who has dedicated his life to killing other human beings, than it is with showing the actual killing.  Through the use of some effective (if a bit obnoxious) second person voiceover narration, we learn exactly what is going on in Frankie’s head at all times, and it is nearly always a variation on the same theme: Frankie is alone in the world, and he is desperately trying to convince himself that he likes it that way.  Thanks to his chosen profession, Frankie has effectively removed himself from the rest of society, and now he spends his days trying to make himself believe that he made the right choice.  But there are definitely cracks in the walls he has built to contain his emotions, and they are growing.  For one thing, meeting Lori again after all this time makes him realizes how achingly lonely he actually is, and when she refuses his awkward and rather forceful advances, Frankie throws himself back into his job.  Unfortunately, it’s too late.  The damage is already done.  He has started to question whether or not he can even go through with it, and he realizes that he no longer wants to walk this path.  Unfortunately, the men who hired him aren’t about to give him a choice in the matter, and now Frankie is trapped, not only within his own thoughts, but also by the choices he has made throughout his life.

It is the film’s quiet tone that makes the occasional burst of violence feel so much more powerful and unexpected.  This brings us to the focus of this month’s column.  Toward the middle of the film, Frankie follows Troiano to a seedy club, and while he’s busy keeping an eye on his target, he almost fails to notice that Big Ralph is also there keeping a close eye on Frankie.  After a tense confrontation in the men’s room, in which Big Ralph threatens to rat out Frankie if Troiano shows up in the obituaries in the next few days, Frankie follows the drunken fat man home, where Frankie lurks on the landing until Big Ralph apparently passes out.   Grabbing a fire axe off the wall, Frankie sets out to shut Ralph up for good, but the big man isn’t going down without a fight.  The brawl that ensues is both completely unexpected and shockingly brutal.

What’s great about this scene is that it feels completely out of place with everything else that comes before or after it in the film, while still feeling as though it perfectly belongs within the reality of the film.  It’s a brutal, violent moment that upsets the sort of quiet tranquility of everything leading up to it, and sets the stage for the film’s somewhat nihilistic but inevitable ending.  It is prefaced by a great chase scene that completely sets the tone for what is about to come, while never quite giving away what is about to happen.  As Big Ralph stumbles home, Frankie stalks him from a respectable distance, sticking to the shadows.  It’s a slow, deliberate game of cat and mouse made totally tense and exciting thanks to some great editing and the blaring music that scores the scene.  This is followed by a totally unexpected burst of violence.  Frankie rushes into the room and swings his axe at Big Ralph, who barely manages to roll out of the way.  I say barely, because a moment later, Big Ralph is bleeding from a wound in his arm.  This doesn’t stop him from fighting back, and soon, he and Frankie are rolling around on the ground, pummeling one another with whatever they can get their hands on as each man desperately tries to kill the other one.  Eventually, Frankie manages to come out on top, and he staggers out into the grey New York morning, left to wander the empty streets alone once more.

The fight is just another link in the chains of fate that bind Frankie.  By leaving yet another dead body in his wake, Frankie is now forced to complete the task of killing Troiano.  If he refuses to carry out the job, his employers will turn him in for the death of Big Ralph.  So once more, Frankie is trapped by his lifestyle, an idea which is visualized by the shot of Frankie striding toward the camera, isolated by the tall buildings which appear to be closing in on him.  Frankie is alone in an unforgiving city that he hates, and it is looking more and more as though death is his only escape.  So instead of running away, he charges headlong into a job that could very well be his last.

It’s not a coincidence that Blast of Silence takes place during Christmas.  While it is traditionally a time for people to gather with their family and friends, there is also a darker side to the holiday.  Many people find themselves in the grip of a crippling depression, and even worse, there is a noticeable spike in the number of suicides during the holidays.  Blast of Silence perfectly captures this sense of loss and alienation, and “Baby Boy” Frankie Bono is the embodiment of loneliness.  He may try to fight it, as when he tries to fight Big Ralph, but he quickly learns that it is not so easy to escape from the grip of despair, especially when it is a result of the very choices he has made throughout his life.

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