I Know It When I See It

A once-controversial film seems tame 50 years later, but mob classic Blast of Silence still sizzles

"I don't know what it is, but I know it when I see it": It's a meme that's been floating around so long that hardly anyone, even those who whip it out, knows where it came from. As it happens, it comes from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and his opinion in the 1964 case of Jacobellis v. Ohio regarding French director Louis Malle's The Lovers.

Nico Jacobellis, a Cleveland Heights movie theater proprietor, had been arrested, fined, and banned from further screening Malle's 1958 film on the grounds that it was obscene. Jacobellis pushed his case all the way up to the high court, which saw things his way. None of the justices who heard the case could come up with a satisfactory litmus test in the aftermath for what constituted obscenity, but Justice Stewart wrote, "I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

To be sure, the subject line of your average spam e-mail is more salacious than anything in The Lovers, which has been re-released in a typically painstaking Criterion Collection edition. Jeanne (the inimitable Jeanne Moreau) is so tired of being ignored by her provincial newspaper-publisher husband Henri (Alain Cuny) that she dallies with handsome Parisian polo player Raoul (Jose Villonga), but the affair feels insubstantial, bloodless—fluidless, in general. While rushing back to her country home to head off disaster at a dinner party with both Henri and Raoul attending, her car breaks down and she catches a lift with young academic Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory). Jeanne and Bernard's mutual dislike is played so effortlessly that their meet-cute doesn't even seem cute, but soon a midnight walk lyrically morphs into a passionate clinch and a tasteful but unmistakable revelation of oral sex—hot stuff for Eisenhower America, perhaps, but barely more than a PG-13 now. The titillation has gone past its sell-by, but the film's elliptical observations of middle-class mating mores remain keen, and any chance to see Moreau play hide and seek with that smile is worth it.

Blast of Silence, from 1961, on the other hand, is the sort of vintage film that contemporary directors are still trying to catch up to and dragging ass while doing it.

Frankie Bono (Allen Baron) not only kills people, he hates them. He rolls into Manhattan a few days before Christmas on a job to whack a mob boss and spends the hours when he's not shadowing his prey trudging past store windows lit up for the season, avoiding contact with other human beings. No wonder Frankie avoids people, considering the people he knows, especially an obese fixer named Ralph (played by scene stealer Larry Tucker) with an apartment full of pet rats. Frankie is especially annoyed to run into a childhood friend, until the friend reconnects him with Lorrie (Molly McCarthy), a girl Frankie once didn't hate. Before long, Frankie's at a party with Lorrie, but his moment of human contact weakens his resolve, and in his business, weakness is a liability.

Baron not only lent his unhandsome mug to the lead role, but he wrote the script and directed, too, and though he went on to a long career directing television, Blast of Silence makes a good case for him as a lost noir master. Baron's vision of New York's mean streets is every bit as gritty as any of his contemporaries', but he exhibits an artful (which is not to say arty) flair, starting with a powerful opening shot that film nerds will recognize from the many lesser directors who have ripped it off and ending with a showdown in a driving rain. The shooting script is as brilliantly structured as it is terse, and the film would almost play as a silent.

In what is likely to be a make-or-break for contemporary viewers, however, Baron uses a tough-guy voice-over ghostwritten to a tee by blacklisted screenwriter Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy, Serpico) that leaks the stoic Frankie's misanthropy all over the screen. Baron flubs his own big scene with Lorrie, both as an actor and director, but nothing else here goes awry. Other than, you know, everything.