Thursday, February 16, 2017

FFB: Death Wish by Brian Garfield

Brain Garfield’s 1972 novel Death Wish is not so much an action story as it is an indictment of a city and time when crime was increasing, people were scared, and cops and politicians were unable or uninterested in doing anything about it.

The first half of the novel focuses on Paul Benjamin’s rage and feeling of impotence after his wife and daughter are assaulted by a group of thugs. His wife dies of her injuries and his daughter is traumatized and committed to a psychiatric hospital. The cops investigating the crime have no leads and no hope of ever finding the criminals. While Paul rails against New York City’s crime problem, his son-in-law, a lawyer for a public defender’s office who spends his days in court representing violent punks, tries to calm him down.

Paul’s anger grows stronger. He is sick of feeling like a victim, cringing in fear when he walks down a dark street, and knowing hoodlums will get away with their crimes.

When he returns to work after a few weeks off, the partners in his accounting firm decide Paul needs a break from the city and send him to Arizona to work on a corporate merger. There, Paul is taken with the myth of the Old West, where a man with a gun could confront outlaws. Before leaving, he buys a revolver, hides it in his luggage and sneaks it into New York.

Now armed, Paul does not wait until he is preyed upon, he goes looking for trouble. He shoots and kills a junkie attempting to rob him, and when the sickening sensation leaves him, he has a feeling of accomplishment. Night after night, he goes out looking to repeat the incident. At first, he rationalizes the shootings by only killing those out to do him harm or in the middle of committing other crimes. Soon his actions leave him feeling nothing. He is as numb to the world as his institutionalized daughter.

A psychiatrist, interviewed in a New York magazine provides a profile of the unknown man whom the press is hailing as a vigilante and citizens are applauding for cleaning up the streets. The psychiatrist says the vigilante is a middle-aged man who has experienced a terrible act of violence either against himself or a family member and is driven by fear and a mental breakdown. The article startles Paul, but does not stop him. By the end of the book, Paul is roaming the streets like an animal, looking for his next victim.

Death Wish is provocative, but, with new fears of terrorism and mass shootings, this novel of street crime reads like yesterday’s headlines.

(For more posts on books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.) 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Quirky Crime Film: Blast of Silence

Frankie Bono, an out-of-town killer hired to take out a New York crime boss, spends several days stalking his intended victim, learning the man’s routines, and picking the best spot to do the job in the off-beat, low-budget, noir film, “Blast of Silence.”

The grim, stoic Frankie, played by Allen Baron, who also wrote and directed this independently made, 1961 feature, goes about his business during the Christmas season and the contrast between the hired gun moving among the happy shoppers is striking.

More striking is the divided nature of Frankie. While he is a cold-blooded pro, he is also a lonely hitman. Accidentally running into an old buddy, Frankie is invited to a party, meets a girl, and desperately goes after her, stopping just short of rape. This makes for a very strange tangent in this odd, intriguing movie.

The many scenes of Frankie doing his job – contacting the man who hires him, buying an illegal gun, and following his target – are accompanied by strangely poetic narration. But it is not the usual first-person narration commonly found in film noir. It is second-person narration delivered, uncredited, by once-blacklisted actor Lionel Stander – he of the distinctive, gravely voice, who later co-starred on TVs “Hart to Hart.” The narration was written by once-blacklisted writer Waldo Salt, under the pen name, Mel Davenport. Salt later wrote the screenplays for “Midnight Cowboy,” and “Serpico.” The voice-over comes from an omniscient character who is talking to Frankie, commenting on his thoughts and actions, rather than informing the audience.

Shot entirely on the streets of New York in a documentary style, “Blast of Silence,” has the look and feel of early John Cassavetes and Stanley Kubrick films and is nearly a decade ahead of Martin Scorsese’s first efforts.

The movie was co-produced and photographed in gritty black and white on dark dreary days by Merrill Brody, a friend of Baron’s since grade school. Another plus is the film’s jazz score by Meyer Kupferman.

This excellent, 77-minute movie was originally released by Universal-International and has recently been given a new life on DVD by Criterion.