Hate and Anger

You were born with hate and anger built in. Took a slap on the backside to blast out the scream. And then you knew you were alive!

Lionel Stander growls these words in the opening minutes of Blast of Silence (1961) as a train barrels through a tunnel. He isn’t onscreen. He isn’t even playing one of the film’s characters. He’s just the voiceover. It’s such a wild formal gambit: wall-to-wall voiceover, directed at “you,” that narrates the film as a sustained, misanthropic rant. But, miracle of miracles, it works. Stander’s snarl is like a scar on the film’s face, its uniquely identifying feature. You may forget a lot of crime movies you see. You don’t forget Blast of Silence.

Even without the voiceover, it’d still be noteworthy. Shot on a shoestring in wintry New York, it’s a minor indie landmark in the fashion of Little Fugitive or Shadows. The no-star cast is led by writer/director Allen Baron, brusquely playing a contract killer cut off from humanity. He’s the kind of taciturn sociopath familiar to noir devotees—forcing a smile when he has to, but more comfortable speaking through a silenced pistol.

In keeping with that minimal performance, Baron and his friend Merrill Brody shoot the city streets with a nasty crispness. The film’s so visually subdued, so scummy yet honest, as if every shot were a crime scene photo. The hit man, Frankie Bono, always looks like a stranger caught unawares, camera-shy and sneering, peeved half to death by Manhattan at Christmastime. And sliding over these visual textures are a tense jazz score and Stander’s choleric croak.

That voiceover has such pungent rage to it. No sooner does Frankie glance at a photo of his mark than Stander declares it “the kind of face you hate.” A character actor in his fifties, Stander chomps into these angry, evil words and spits them into the audience’s face. His performance has a secret history to it: in 1961, Stander was long out of work, having been blacklisted after his disastrous HUAC testimony a decade earlier. His feature-length monologue was written by Waldo Salt, a similarly blacklisted screenwriter (and future Oscar winner).

So this isn’t just an angry voiceover. It’s fueled by the life experiences of two men who’d been witch-hunted and fucked over by the film industry. It’s the howl of the outsider, a voice from hell. Not to mention really well-written—it digs into Frankie’s back story, but doesn’t grow too expository or reductive; it’s always pissed off, but never histrionic. It hypothesizes about pasts and futures, hurls out nihilistic epigrams, and badgers Bono when his mind starts wandering.

Stander’s voice slinks throughout the film, but takes some breaks to let dialogue or ambient noise sink in. It’s the interior counterpart to Baron’s totally exterior performance, cluing us in to how calculated Frankie’s most casual gestures are. How hard it is for him to naturally act like a human being. Thanks to Salt and Stander’s uncredited contribution, Blast of Silence is a psychological study and an infernal travelogue. It raises the movie’s temperature from red hot to white.

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