Thursday, September 22, 2011

Taxi Driver & Blast of Silence

The Castroscreened an interesting double bill earlier this month.

Taxi Driver starring Robert De Niro; with Albert Brooks, Cybil Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle and Jodie Foster; directed by Martin Scorsese; (1976)
Blast of Silence starring, directed and screenplay by Allen Baron; (1961)


There is not much to say about Taxi Driver. I think it is the third time I've seen it all the way through although the first time in a movie theater. I've seen portions of the film countless times. I can't add much to the chorus regarding this film. I hold it in high regard and that evening's screening confirmed my memories. There were a few things that I had forgotten. If you have never seen Taxi Driver, I'd skip to the next section as I freely discuss the ending and key plot points.

The relationship between Albert Brooks and Cybil Shepherd is more comical than romantic. There may be some mutual attraction but they are hiding it behind banter and silly behavior. It's not clear to me why Shepherd's character succumbs to Travis Bickle's hard sell request for a date.

Robert De Niro turned in a performance as Bickle which only gets better over time. Compared to his performances Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino, De Niro's Bickle really is a case of still waters running deep. If you haven't seen the film, it's not obvious what De Niro is going to do. His actions and behavior hint at someone with serious issues but not someone who will go on a killing spree. Insomnia, taking a woman to a porn film on their first date (you always wait until the second date!) and consorting with underage hookers are disturbing but not outright frightening. De Niro & Scorsese don't go over the top with Bickle unlike many films since then. As a result, when Bickle emerges with a Mohawk, it comes as a shock and is disorienting. Bickle intended to murder a presidential candidate but was foiled by security so he goes with plan B which is rescuing the 12 year old hooker.

Keitel is more slimy than frightening as the pimp and the scene where he is dancing with Jodie Foster is really creepy but sheds great insight into the dynamics of their relationship.

Bickle seems to have issues with black pimps throughout the film. He gives them hard looks throughout the film. Keitel's character was originally black but changed to accommodate Keitel and avoid put racial overtones into Bickle's actions.

Scorsese shows up in a memorable scene. I recalled his performance as a cuckolded husband stewing in Bickle's taxi but he is more menacing and troubled than my recollection.

My memory of the film is that it ends with Bickle dying after the rampage with an overhead shot. However, the film indicates that he survived the shootout, was hailed a hero and has another encounter with Betsy (Shepherd). It has been long debated whether that scene represents Bickle's dying thoughts or should be taken as literal. Given that Bickle was identified with a gun near a US senator and presidential candidate (who wins the nomination) as well the short period of time between the shootout and the time setting for his meeting Betsy, I think it was a dream sequence or a representation of Bickle's fantasy before the shootout.


Blast of Silence is a low budget film (more than a little noirish) about a Cleveland hitman in New York for a job. Frank Bono (Allen Baron) grew up in New York and has staked out a target for assassination. He has procured his weapon from a fat, sleazy and vaguely effeminate middle man (Larry Tucker in the best performance). Frank just has to lay low over Christmas, pull off the job and skip town. Rather than remaining holed up, Frank goes out and trouble follows him.

First, he is reunited with a childhood friend and his sister (who Frank is sweet on). They insist that he come over for a Xmas party. By the way, at the party, I'm positive I saw an actor who later appeared in Jacques Tati's Play Time (1967) - in the restaurant scene. I can't figure out the actor's name from IMDB. Anyway, being in close proximity to a woman he yearns for has awakened feelings of loneliness in Frank which dulls his killing instincts.

More problematic is that Frank's fat gun dealer figures out why Frank needs the gun and asks for more money or else he'll tip of the target, a mid-level mafioso. This spooks Frank and he tries to call off the job but his client refuses and threatens Frank. I wont' give away the ending but I will say I predicted it.

Two scenes stood out in my memory. One is an ax murder and the other takes place during a hurricane. Both scenes are powerful and elevate Blast of Silence beyond its meager budget. On that count, part of the film captures New York in the Mad Men era. I recognized the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza. There was an extended scene where Frank wanders around the city which looked like pure filler for the 77 minute film. The opening scene where a train emerges from a tunnel is also visually memorable.

At its rotten core, Blast of Silence is a bleak and unforgiving film. Frank is morally bankrupt and he is just beginning to realize that there won't be any happy endings for him. To punctuate the film, there is narration by an unseen Waldo Salt whose voice sounds like a raspy and cynical version of Jack Webb. Salt, a blacklisted screenwriter, would go on to write the screenplays for Serpico, Midnight Cowboy and The Day of the Locust.

I'm surprised that Blast of Silence hasn't screened at Noir City. Blast of Silence reminded me of two films I've seen this year - On the Bowery, a 1957 psuedo-documentary about men living in the Bowery section of Manhattan and Dementia, a 1955 no-dialog film which I saw at I Wake Up Dreaming about a woman encountering some shady characters in the big city.

There is nothing original in recommending Taxi Driver but I'm also bullish on Blast of Silence which I consider an unearthed gem, albeit unpolished. Discovering films like Blast of Silence is why I love going to the movies.

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