Blast of Silence

Allen Baron as "Baby Boy" Frankie Bono in Blast of Silence (dir. Allen Baron, 1961).

Walking the mean streets.

Harlem and the Apollo (Peter H. Clune, second from right, with the moustache).

I'd be willing to bet money that Taxi Driver is a near-direct result of Scorsese studying this movie frame by frame. It's all there: the fatalistic voiceover, the downbeat jazz score, the big slow cars gliding over rain-slick city streets, the sexually thwarted protagonist. Like Dassin's Rififi, it was shot by happy chance on overcast and stormy days, filtering muted expressivism through documentary frankness into a subjective grey totality. Director Baron stepped into the lead role after originally-slated actor Peter Falk said he couldn't do it, and he doesn't so much act as direct on screen, using his body's wary tenseness as a cue for the general spirit of alienation that drives the story. Like Scorsese's Travis Bickle, "Baby Boy" Frankie Bono is above all lonely. He wants to make human connections despite himself and his occupation (hit-man), and most of the time he succeeds in suppressing that desire. When he does let his guard down, the results are a botch. As soon as he allows an old chum from the orphanage--and more importantly, the old chum's sister--to talk him into attending a party, he makes himself fatally vulnerable. When he joins in a party game of pushing peanuts across the floor with his nose, we know he's had it. There's no way to recover the protection of his criminal shell. He's like Frankenstein's monster: gestures of kindness only enflame his awareness of his own maladjusted nature and lead him to embarrass himself (both emotionally and professionally).

The footage of New York City ca. 1959 is reason alone for watching. Each time the camera registers a specific location--Greenwich Village, Rockefeller Center, the Staten Island Ferry, Penn Station--it generates a little photoessay set piece. The Harlem sequence is especially striking.

More on the film at Noir of the Week.

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