June 12, 1961 [Blast of Silence, Elevator to the Gallows]

The Man With a Gun shows up, his face calm--but apparently all kinds of frantic business is going on in his otherwise efficient head. Blast of Silence let me know all about it with a constant narrator--had to be Lionel Stander, even though I didn't see his name anywhere on the credits, an actor who can make the telephone directory sound like Damon Runyon disappointed. He kept telling us about the heat and sweat of the hit man, the bursting passions, the electric fear--the last was news to us: the man himself--Frank Bono, played by the director, Allen Baron--was impassive, blank. If he were afraid of anything, I think it would be that someone might ask him to speak or move his eyes. He is for much of the picture a living statue of The Man With the Gun--even though he wanders all over New York City at Christmas time, the carols and lights still pretty--but he walks right through it, bringing his blankness with him. It's a grand tour travelogue, from Rockefeller Center to Greenwich Village, from Penn Station to the marshes at the city's edge, the water struck by slanting snow; but he studiously ignores it and pulls tight inside himself.

And brutal, remorseless. He picks up a fire ax to dispose of a big slob the way I'd snatch a scrap of paper to leave my wife a note on the kitchen table. He lunges at an old flame, almost raping her on Christmas day. He puts together his gun in the fleabag hotel, like Jonas Salk readying the syringe--but when he's done, Frank doesn't offer a cure, he just points the thing at us and pulls the trigger. And on he plods, sick of it but still digging in.

Meanwhile, in France, the Men With Guns also have their narrators--in the crazy-titled Elevator to the Gallows, though, it's a beautiful woman, herself crazy in love, murmuring to us about it from the start--but she seems somehow cold, even though her heart is melting. Her man has killed her husband for the two of them, up there in the husband's top-floor office--a big corporation, rotten, it seems, like the French messes in Algiers and Indochina. And it looks like suicide--but he's stuck in the elevator, and the woman doesn't know it, so we get him pecking away at the elevator while she--Jeanne Moreau, her head lifted, her lips waiting, but motionless--tells us how much she loves him, and how deeply his absence disappoints her--has he lost his nerve or just gone off with another woman? And then there's the two teenagers, the flower-shop girl and her existential junior hoodlum boyfriend, who steal the Man With a Gun's cool convertible and get their own Gun, and get the man in the elevator into deep trouble--everyone thinks the punk is the man--and down down down everybody goes in that elevator.

The American picture follows a straight thick line from birth--we hear the smack and scream, while Lionel tells us nothing's gonna be pretty in this life--to the cold end, while the French twist and turn through mixed-up love and mistaken murderers--but that's OK, because everybody in these pictures is either killer or victim--taking turns, some of them, so they can pretend they know what it's like to want out.


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