Monday, April 12, 2010

Blast from the Past

One of the downsides of having a voracious movie habit is that you'll over-fish the waters eventually. I'm running out of good films noir, for example. I mean, I enjoy looking at the second tier noirs--some of those are even my favorite films in the idiom, but eventually you're into third and fourth-tier films and you find that the thrill is pretty much gone. Still, there are unearthed gems, so I keep poking around. I think that's the way that the Criterion people do it, too. How else to explain their interest and love for such forgotten films as Overlord or, more germane to my film noir problem, Blast of Silence. Blast of Silence (1961, directed by Allen Baron). This film is pretty obscure. While it was released by Universal (in their "Universal International" days), it comes out of the dawning New York underground movement. It also comes at the tail end of the classic noir period, and you can see the self-consciousness of post-noir filter into the way it's constructed. The voice over narration ties it to the classic noir, while the way it is shot ties it to the neo-Realists, and the French New Wave, who constructed their films in part from classic noir and the neo-Realists. It looks like a nouvelle vague film. Note the softness of this image:

That's not the kind of image that you find in the abstracted world of the classic noir. It looks more like one of Truffaut's shots of Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows.

The story is mostly banal. We follow hitman Frankie Bono out of Cleveland on a job that takes him to the Big Apple at Christmas. Once there, one of the suppliers of the tools of his trade identifies what his job is and tries to shake him down, meanwhile, Bono runs across old acquaintances who don't know what he does for a living. He's torn between the ruthlessness of his job, the alienation it entails, and a desire for a "normal" life. These conspire to suck him into the bleak downward spiral of a classic noir protagonist. This narrative is accompanied by an interior narrative, delivered in voice-over by Lionel Stander, that's a portrait in anomie and psychopathology. This is a counterpoint to the documentary-style adopted by the camera, which portrays the hustle and bustle of Christmastime New York, from Rockefeller Center to Harlem to the bleak swamps to the east where generations of criminals have dumped bodies.

The beginning of the film is arresting, all right: the soundtrack tells us that all routs into New York are shrouded in darkness and that emerging into the city is like being born, full of piss and vinegar and hatred. This immediately marks Blast of Silence as an art film of sorts, rather than a stock genre exercise. Unfortunately, it never quite shakes off the genre, and it suffers for it because it doesn't trust the genre to cover its ass. There's a whiff of pretense in this movie. Still, it's better to take a swing at the fences than the alternative, I suppose. Plus, it's short at 77 minutes, so it doesn't collapse under its own weight.

In any event, this film can be seen as a kind of bridge between the classic noir films and the urban alienation film of the 1970s. It's hard to watch this movie and not see a bit of Travis Bickell in Frankie Bono.


Darius Whiteplume said...

Two recent films that I think make it as pseudo noir entries are In Bruges (my short review) and Eastern Promises. Colin Farrell's character from In Bruges reminds me of Phillip Marlowe after he's killed Carino in "The Big Sleep" - all messed up, and no where to go. Eastern Promises was all bad guys, and created a very dreary atmosphere. I plan to watch it on DVR shortly (it is coming on FX). Not sure how they are going to keep Vigo's cock out of it :-D

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Keeping Vigo's cock out of Eastern Promises would be like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

Blasphemy, I tells ya! Blasphemy!

Darius Whiteplume said...

We watched just the fight scene last night, and they fuzzed him out pretty heavily. What is wrong with the world when attempted murder is less offensive than a naked man?

DeAnna said...

Kay, getting caught up on the correspondence back-log.

The good news is that it is virtually impossible to catch up on all of the film noir since it is still being made. Have you explored Japanese film noir? I stumbled up a trilogy of really fun films a few years back, that I highly recommend. The Most Terrible Time in My Life is about the detective agency in a movie theater of Maiku Hammu and it looks like a vintage piece of film noir. It is a blast.

I love these modern films that attempt to take on the look and feel of eras past. One of the reasons I adored Black Dynamite, too. But there are plenty of examples of films that suggest that film noir isn't yet gone. I just read a review for The Square that suggests it is film noir.