Allen Baron’s lonely, murky, Christmas-set noir Blast of Silence is notable for a number of things – its barely existent budget, stark city photography done without permits, and a rare second person narration track (read by veteran character actor Lionel Stander). The latter suitably sets the mood of the film and includes passages like, “When the Better Business Bureau rings the Christmas bell, the suckers forget there’s such a business as murder, and businessmen who make it their exclusive line,” which blur the usual holiday spirit with something a lot colder, and a lot more sinister.
This passage from Blast of Silence is all about business and it’s far from a throwaway line. Baron’s film is greatly concerned with the commerce of murder situated alongside the type of capitalism associated with how Christmas is celebrated (at least in the United States). Our lead killer, the nearly silent brute Frank Bono (played by Baron himself), passes various store displays in the Big Apple and locations that are known for attracting seasonal tourists both then and now. But he isn’t concerned with this; his goal is to simply to the job he was sent to do – assassinate a mobster – until some of his past gets in the way.
Baron’s film, though influential in its own right, was far from the first crime film – or even the first noir – to utilize Christmas in its narrative.
For the purposes of this piece, we will go back to 1942 – nearly 20 years before Blast of Silence was released – to Lloyd Bacon’s crime comedy Larceny, Inc. starring Edward G. Robinson as a crook named Pressure who wants to pull off one last heist at a bank with a climax that takes place on Christmas Eve and Robinson dressed as a cigar chomping Santa. Jumping forward a few years, we end up in 1946 with Robert Montgomery’s first person noir adaptation of Lady in the Lake, changing the summer setting of the novel to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In 1949, Alfred E. Green gave us a small town murder mystery set at Christmas with Cover Up, which makes great use of seasonal decorations and even gift-wrapped presents. Another hard boiled adaptation hit screens at the height of 3D with 1953’s I, the Jury which, like Blast of Silence, is also set in New York City. But, perhaps the film that most closely matches what Baron was doing in Blast of Silence is Jean-Pierre Melville’s Two Men In Manhattan – (also likely without permits) – a grim, black and white photographed descent into the despair of the city during the holiday season.
Plenty of genre films have been set at Christmas, including titles like First Blood, Invasion U.S.A., Cobra, Running Scared, and even the ultimate “Christmas movie” argument starter, Die Hard. But these films use the holiday as set dressing. What Christmas-set noir films like Blast of Silence, Lady in the Lake, and Two Men in Manhattan have in common – outside of their genre – is that they use their holiday trappings within their narratives rather than as mere set dressing. There’s a contrast between the colorful, joyful spirit of the holiday and the dreary monochrome, crime-laden narratives in these films. In Blast of Silence, Baron displaces a Cleveland hitman into New York City at the jolliest time of the year, and the depicts the city as anything but; a seemingly desolate urban landscape speckled with twinkly lights, wreaths, and ornament-laden trees becomes a home for our lonely hitman who has a job to do.
For a film that is so worked up about money, Blast of Silence was a decidedly cheap and guerilla affair which helps capture the city in a way few others would at the time (save for John Cassavetes), establishing New York as a gritty, oppressive location that exists in stark contrast to the Christmas holiday. Baron’s film has no breaks for Christmas carols or a character getting into the guise of Santa; it allows the Christmas setting to exist both in the backdrop in its plentiful decorations while also in the foreground in its discussions of class and associated capitalism. But at its core, Blast of Silence is a tough, lean, post-noir about a lonely hitman who just needs to kill someone at Christmas time and its narration ends aptly:
‘God moves in mysterious ways,’ they said. Maybe he is on your side, 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 cold, black silence.