Blow Out (1981)
Directed by: Brian De Palma.
Written by: Brian De Palma.
Starring: John Travolta (Jack Terry), Nancy Allen (Sally), John Lithgow (Burke), Dennis Franz (Manny Karp), Peter Boyden (Sam), Curt May (Donahue), John Aquino (Detective Mackey), John McMartin (Lawrence Henry).
Blow Out may or may not be Brian De Palma’s best film – it’s very close to it if it isn’t – but it is undoubtedly the film I would show a newcomer De Palma’s work if I want to encapsulate everything that makes De Palma such a great director when he’s working at his peak. It is one of his Hitchcock inspired thrillers, with mind boggling set pieces the master of suspense would happily have called his own, and yet it’s more than just an exercise in style, like some lesser De Palma are. The film will remind cinephiles of two other, probably more famous films – Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966), where a photographer obsessively examines photos he took in a park, where he may – or may not have – captured a murder in the background, and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), in which Gene Hackman obsessively listens, and re-listens to a conversation he has recorded for a client, trying to figure out if it contains evidence of a murder.
The “hero” of De Palma’s Blow Out is Jack Terry – played, in one of his very best performances by John Travolta, who works as a sound man for low rent slasher movies – the kind in which a lot of naked girls get stalked and killed, but only after having copious amounts of sex. He does all the sound effects for the films, and his director wants some new ones – including wind, and especially a new scream. Terry heads out one night into a park in Philadelphia, and as he’s recording new sounds, a car skids off the road, and crashes into a nearby creek. Terry jumps into action, dives in and rescues a girl – Sally (Nancy Allen) from the wreckage. He isn’t able to save the man who was driver – Governor McRyan, who was well on his way to becoming President. Terry is convinced that he heard – and recorded – a gunshot before the car tire blow out, and wants to prove that this wasn’t a tragic accident, but actually a murder. No one believes him – except for Sally, who he enlists to help him.
The opening shot of Blow Out is a virtuoso one in its own right – as a killer stalks a sorority house from the outside, before heading inside with his knife – and going full slasher attacking a woman in the shower. This sequence, which is done all in one take, from the killer’s POV, is the first of many times in the movie when De Palma will play with the audience – and introduce an element of black humor to the movie – as he reveals that what we are watching isn’t real, but is part of the movie that Terry will be working on. It’s almost as if De Palma is toying with the audience there – after some of the criticism he had received for prior films, being overly divertive or oversexed, he’s putting that out there front and center, and then pulling it away again (it also plays perfectly with the final scene of the movie – the two of them are perfect bookends to the movie).
This is hardly the last virtuoso piece of camerawork in the film. De Palma uses both new and old techniques throughout the movie, and what he and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond do with split screens, and steadicam (the first time De Palma used one – a year after Kubrick in The Shining) is remarkable. The finale setpiece – a chase through the streets of Philly, climaxing with a burst of fireworks and other Americana – including, of course, murder – is perhaps the best thing De Palma has ever filmed.
What makes Blow Out better than the other Hitchcock inspired films of De Palma though is not just the style – the style of Sisters, Obsession, Dressed to Kill, Body Double and Femme Fatale is nearly as good as it is in Blow Out – it’s in the way De Palma weaves the plot together, and because the characters in Blow Out feel real – which moves the movie beyond mere thriller into the realm of real tragedy in the end. Travolta’s Jack Terry is a man who becomes obsessed with finding the truth – and is determined that he is the only one who can actually do that. He trusts in his abilities to do that, and distrusts everyone else. Throughout the movie, as grows closer to Nancy Allen’s Sally – perhaps even grows to love her. But he also isn’t above using her for his own means – in a key sequence near the end of the movie, he sends her into a situation that could be dangerous, while he hangs back with his sound equipment from a safe distance – to “gather evidence”. For her part, Allen is just as good as Travolta, in a role that at first seems frivolous – as if perhaps she is nothing but a sex object (there are multiple characters in the movie that use her in just that way – although they are all clearly sleazy). She is a dreamer and an optimist – she loves the fact that Terry works “in the movies”, and won’t watch the news because it’s “too depressing”. All she wants is to be happy, but she allows herself to be dragged along – by one man after another, to do something she doesn’t really want to do. Even John Lithgow’s Burke – a violent man willing to do anything, including “pose” as a sexual serial killer to cover his tracks – is given slightly more, not depth really, but something more defined that most killers of this sort in movies. He is terrifying because we know he’s capable of anything. And, in a smaller role, Dennis Franz is very good as a slezeball P.I., with a camera, and his own version of the American Dream.
The film has one of the most cynical and nihilistic endings of any genre film that I can recall. It’s really only at the end of the film where everything snaps into focus – as to who our “hero” really is, which is tragically flawed. It’s an ending worthy of Hitchcock – who did this a few times (jn films like Vertigo or Notorious), but also completely De Palma. The finale shot of the movie is one the saddest shots in film history – a haunted man who has ensured he will remain haunted forever.
To say that De Palma has had a very tumultuous career would be an understatement – for every great films (like Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface, Body Double, Femme Fatale) there is a bad one (like Mission to Mars or Bonfire of the Vanities or Redacted) – and a whole hell of lot in between. But at his best, De Palma could be one of the very best filmmakers of his generation – someone who takes what came before him, and mixes the ingredients into something wholly his own. No wonder Quentin Tarantino loves him so much – he’s basically made a career out of doing the same thing.