Reel Brooklyn is a biweekly column chronicling the definitive history of Brooklyn on-screen, one film—and neighborhood—at a time.
Whatever else you make of it, Allen Baron’s indie uber-noir Blast of Silence (1961) is undoubtedly the sourest Christmas movie ever made—not before or since have the beloved New York iconography of the season, up to and including a stroll past the tree and ice skaters at Rockefeller Center, been sneered at with such cynical derision. That suits the genre, of course: Baron, a nobody in 1961 who went on to direct decades of TV, from Room 222 to The Love Boat to Cagney & Lacey, clearly loved to talk the noir talk and walk the noir walk, and his ultra-gray low-budge ditty is all tough talk, raincoats, bitter glowering, and crime-world cliches.
It’s so aware of itself, in fact, that it’s nearly a meta-noir, a genre-theory study onto itself, ticking off the tropes and iconic gestures with a postmodernist’s glee, a sense you particularly get when you isolate the outrageously arch, 2nd-person narration, written by HUAC blacklistee Waldo Salt and murmured through a fish tank of gravel by uncredited rusty-gear character-star and fellow blacklistee Lionel Stander. “When the Better Business Bureau rings the Christmas bell,” he intones, “the suckers forget there’s such a business as murder, and businessmen who make it their exclusive line.” Baron plays the lead, a depressed and self-hating out-of-town hitman on a job, as he negotiates the city, the holiday bustle, an old girlfriend, and annoyingly uncooperative machinations of arranging a mob hit, the lead-heavy narration layers after him like a neverending fog of bitterness. “You were born in pain,” says Stander. “You were born with hate and anger built in…” “Hands sweaty on the wheel… Another Christmas, running from the cops…” “You have all of Christmas day to kill…” Stander’s growlings, all addressed to Baron’s “you,” give the film a strange, dreamlike quality, as though a head-shaking god is running color commentary on the character’s pathetic life, all the way to its preordained end.
And it ends in East New York. After roaming around vast swaths of Manhattan—with brief detours to Long Island suburbs and the Queens docks facing the Queensboro Bridge—the film follows Baron’s Frankie out into the wintery, marshy wastes of Spring Creek Basin, which in 1961 was a sparsely populated region famous for multiple landfills, incinerators, illegal dumping, and Mob corpse disposal, and for being intolerably close to Idlewild Airport (later JFK). Development, including the building of Starrett City, would come over a decade later; for Baron’s purposes, this was the city’s no man’s land, a mapless territory into which civilization, and the law, do not venture. What few houses we see are century-old shacks on the verge of rotting into the muck; it looks less like mid-century Brooklyn than some Depression-era Louisiana shithole, cloaked in a dauntingly gray, snowy New York winter.
Lured there to his doom by anonymous avenging mob elements, walking over the icy swamps on a rickety boardwalk complete with a gate in the middle of nowhere and a Dantean sign reading No Trespassing, No Connection, Frankie is a dead man walking, destined to take a bullet and fall, like Keith Carradine’s sacrificial cowboy in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, into the very real, very cold water. Stander’s demigod intonations don’t leave it there, and his ending spiel is worth quoting: “God moves in mysterious ways, they said. Maybe he is on your side now, the way it all worked out. Remembering other Christmases, wishing for something, something important, something special. And this is it, baby boy, Frankie Bono—you’re alone now. All alone. The scream is dead. There’s no pain. You’re home again. Back in the black, cold silence.”