A hitman returns to New York, his home-town, to carry out one last job, but things go wrong.
Straight from the opening of 1961s Blast of Silence, a black screen with the gravelly voice of the narrator speaking directly to the audience, the film offers a different take on the classic Film Noir.
Remembering. Out of the black silence you were born in pain.
The voice-over is spoken in the second person (‘you’). The narrator is outside of the story looking in, omniscient, seemingly all knowing, goading and mocking the protagonist, sometimes condescending or patronising, sometimes anticipating the protagonist’s thoughts. At other times the narrator acts in the role of the protagonist’s conscience. It’s a bold stylistic device that’s perfectly exploited.
Slowly, a circle of light appears in the middle of the black screen. It turns out to be light at the end of a train tunnel. The protagonist is metaphorically born, and he arrives in New York getting off the train.
You were born with hate and anger built-in. Took a slap in the backside to blast out the scream. And then you knew you were alive. Eight pounds, five ounces. Baby boy Frankie Bono.
Out of the tunnel, we are in New York a couple of days before Frankie Bono, a gangster hit man, has to murder a mobster from a rival syndicate — but things don’t work out.
Frankie Bono thinks that this is his last job. A life of killing, violence and death has taken its toll on him — the alienation and loneliness, constantly moving from city to city to evade the law. He’s like Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, there’s only so much a person can take. At some point a man doesn’t want to spend his entire life looking out behind him — he wants a rest, some human warmth.
The idea of having a relationship and a quiet, ordinary domestic life is alluring to Frankie Bono, but it’s an impossibility. He’s traumatised by his childhood experience. He has no family (we assume that he was given up for adoption, because we know that he was raised in an orphanage), and he’s been brutalised by violence and probably abuse. This dysfunctional history has made him an effective killer, but now he’s losing it. A women from his youth offers him a glimpse of the normal life that he’s never had, but he misreads her friendship and bungles their encounter.
The cinematography is shot in the Film Noir style, black and white with heavy shadows. The distinctive gravelly tone of the voice-over, and ambient jazz music provide an auditory motif to compliment the noir look. A scene in the club is almost completely without dialogue, the music does the talking. For an early 60s film it still feels remarkably fresh.
While it’s a very different film to Seconds (1966), both films share the same brutal fatalism. ‘A killer who doesn’t kill gets killed,’ the narrator goads Frankie. The narrator’s comments provide a revealing insight into Frankie Bono’s mindset, as well as creating empathy for an otherwise oppressively dark character.
Frankie Bono dispenses violence and is the victim of it. This late Film Noir has a trace of the Counter Culture about it, existential angst, and the French New Wave even with the gravelly voice of the narrator sounding like the narrator in Alphaville (1965). It’s not an easy film to watch, but the narrator keeps it moving with his dry humour, making it a rewarding experience, and certainly a memorable one.
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.