Christmas in Cold Blood: Allen Baron’s Yuletide Noir
The Christmas film noir is not a common genre combination.1 The noir – born during wartime terror and christened during post-war trauma – is bleak, pessimistic, and never ends well for its protagonists. "The film noir is a film of death," as Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton characterise it.2 Meanwhile, Christmas stories are intrinsically redemptive and embody joy, rebirth and "goodwill toward men," with the holiday's date selected for the mythological implications of the winter solstice – the beginning of the death of darkness and birth of light.3 So seemingly incompatible are the two that Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992) uses their juxtaposition as comedy in its film-within-a-film scenes ("Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal, and a happy New Year!"). Both genres concern darkness, but while noir films go into it, Christmas films come out of it. Usually, attempts at combining the two only exists in ironic neo-noir exercises like L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997), or only use the holiday season as incidental to the plot, as in Robert Siodmak's Christmas Holiday (1944) or Harry Essex's I, the Jury (1953). The story of Sunset Boulevard (1950) even skips yuletide completely and goes straight to New Year's Eve.
Then there's Allen Baron's Blast of Silence (1961), an accidental masterpiece made independently from any studio that miraculously finds a natural and genuine synthesis between the two genres. Baron, a comic-strip artist turned filmmaker after designing sets for an exploitation film, writes, directs, and acts in the lead role of Frankie Bono, a hitman arriving in New York City from Cleveland on assignment. He meets his contact and is given the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve to kill mob boss Troiano (Peter Clune). Frankie wants to ignore Christmas season, as it only stands to get in the way of his job, but something inside him can't. With this dynamic the film finds the meeting point between film noir and Christmas story, and it's all tied together in a shot that could only happen in New York.
After a day of stalking Troiano, Frankie decides to become a face in the crowd to avoid suspicion. In an unbroken, consistent side-on tracking shot, he walks down 5th Avenue passing shoppers and bright window displays on a flat z-axis. A choral version of "Deck the Halls" plays over ambient sounds of the busy street. Eventually the background opens up, revealing the Rockefeller Center and its landmark Christmas tree at the far end. Frankie doesn't even glance at it, continuing to face straight ahead. As the camera continues to follow him walking, our view of the Rockefeller Center disappears and the shot ends in a cross-fade. Now Frankie is turning a corner and walking right next to the tree. While just about to pass it, he awkwardly looks up at it, as though he had been fighting the urge.
By the nature of being something that needs ignoring, Christmas – or rather, the acknowledgement of Christmas – becomes an obstacle to Frankie's assignment. Frankie is attempting to blend in with the crowd and at the start of the shot he's succeeding, coolly slipping between other pedestrians in the foreground and background, looking like a regular New Yorker on Christmas Eve. However, once he passes the Rockefeller Centre, the story turns. As viewers, the opening of the z-axis, coupled with the lines of the bold Art Deco buildings on both sides of the Rockefeller Centre pointing to the vantage point, draw our eyes directly to the tree there. Impossible for us to ignore, it highlights Frankie's supposed ignorance of it, destroying his aim of blending in. As he walks alone his apathy against the wide background of Christmas cheer makes him stick out.
Noticeably absent from this shot is the gravely voice-over by character actor Lionel Stander, which layers most of the film. Narrated entirely in second person ("You're proud of your reputation. Expert and thorough." "You could kill him right now with pleasure."), yet responding to everything Frankie sees, the voice-over is Frankie's interior monologue, convincing himself he's a tough, cynical hitman who thrives on hat. The hard-boiled clichés and tar-filled tone of Stander's voice sounds like a character from another movie, while the second person perspective suggests a director's notes to an actor in said film. This isn't who Frankie really is, but rather a part he needs to play to finish his job. The silence of this voice-over during the 33-second long shot of Frankie passing the Rockefeller Center is immediately noticeable. It's the first time – save dialogue scenes – it's been given such a gap. The hitman narrative in Frankie's head has halted, leaving a moment of purity and vulnerability, of repressed feelings bubbling up that threaten to ruin the hitman veneer, revealing the real Frankie: cold, scared, cowardly and almost pitiful.
According to Baron, he chose the setting of New York during Christmas time because of the city and holiday's "fantastic contrast against a professional killer, out to do what he was out to do. [Hearing] the songs of goodwill… as a man in the city for the sole purpose of murdering someone."4 This "contrast" is how Baron works the genres together. Christmas, inviting a rebirth, a change of the lonely life Frankie leads, becomes the antagonist to the noir narrative, tempting Frankie to walk away from it. As he travels through New York, the voice-over almost randomly mentions traumas of Christmas past: "Your hands are cold when you think of Christmas," "Remembering another Christmas running from the cops," in addition to recalling childhood Christmas memories wishing for "something bigger, more important. Something special" (in Baron's memoir, he mentions that the youngest of his older brothers died of diphtheria on Christmas Eve at age nine5). At Christmas, Frankie's regrets of what has been converge with his long-ago wishes of what could have been. It's these regrets and wishes that Frankie attempts to ignore as he walks past the Rockefeller tree, and though he's not looking at the tree, the construction of the shot, with all lines pointing towards it, tells us he's thinking of nothing else. Frankie's yielding to glance at the tree in the following shot portrays his yearning for a way out of the hate-filled life of a hitman, as does his attempt at starting a relationship with childhood crush Lori (Molly McCarthy) later in the film, botched through misunderstandings and lack of social experience.
In the end, Frankie does attempt redemption, trying to go back on his contract and escape the hitman narrative, but in true noir fashion, there's no escape. He's in too deep and a lifetime of killing catches up. And yet, in true Christmas fashion, there's an element of rebirth in Frankie's death. As the voice-over suggests, Frankie has gotten what he was wishing for after all. "This is it . . . the scream is dead, there's no pain. You're home again."