Directed by: Brian De Palma
Written by: Brian De Palma (screenplay)
Starring: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, and Dennis Franz
It’s sad that Blow Out, perhaps the finest film I’ve seen from the 1980s if not certainly one of the top five, is a forgotten relic of that decade. Director Brian De Palma is known more for 1983’s Scarface, which looks like child’s play compared to this masterpiece. John Travolta is known for fading into obscurity until Pulp Fiction, yet in this film he gives his greatest performance.
In a decade where the political propaganda of Top Gun and the teen angst of John Hughes’ films are the lasting impressions of American cinema, it’s easy to see how a film like Blow Out that uses a dominant color palette of red, white and blue in a story of political corruption and murder, would fade away. Thanks to those people at The Criterion Collection, it has resurfaced and been redistributed for the generation that missed it so they can get swept up in its mastery.
De Palma is often criticized for not being original, more so than other acclaimed directors. He shamelessly borrows story ideas and references to other films that have inspired him. Blow Out is based on Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, a film about a man who believes he has photographed a murder. In this one, Travolta’s Jack Terry has recorded a car crash with what he believes is a gunshot preceding it.
De Palma uses this opportunity to take us into the often unsung mastery of those in movie sound effects. Jack is a sound man, but only for bad movies as he tells Sally (Nancy Allen), the girl he rescues from the car. She was accompanying the governor of Philadelphia, who was also in line to run and possibly win a Presidential election. She’s also not his wife.
Behind-the-scenes men in that man’s campaign quickly rush Sally and Jack out of the hospital’s back door after calmly but sinisterly hushing them. Jack becomes obsessed with uncoiling the mysteries of his recording, and we’re taken along on the journey not as spectators, but as participants. De Palma’s strategy in this film is not the one he used in Carrie or Scarface, which were distant but still somewhat sympathetic character studies. Here we’re embedded completely and totally in the situation. It’s a terrifyingly effective experience because he uses the same gruesome, manipulative editing strategies as he does in those films.
The split-screen is another De Palma standard from his films, like Sisters, that he subverts in exceedingly clever ways here. Here he will foreground a close-up object to divide the frame in half and use it to frame the action in the background of the shot. He does this brilliantly in the scene where the shady assassin Burke (John Lithgow) stalks a woman he believes to be Nancy through the streets and shops of Philly. As they enter a fish market, De Palma lingers on a closeup of fish in that split-screen technique as the woman continues walking on the other half. Suddenly, Burke’s hand reaches into the ice around the fish and pulls out the sharp tool used to measure temperature. The sinister purpose is fully realized as the action still progresses.
The macabre tone that this film builds up throughout echoes not just the suspense techniques of Hitchcock, but also, in that final, haunting sequence, the work of Edgar Allen Poe. We realize all along through all that intrigue and separate story arc, Travolta is still looking for a scream to record for another awful horror movie. Let’s just say he finds it.
In a post-9/11 world, political thrillers aren’t typically made as pop escapism (The Bourne movies being the only worthy example). The 80s soundtrack keeps Blow Out grounded in its own time period and dates it. Without it and the knowledge that Travolta has taken unfortunate acting directions as of late, it is decidedly modern. He and Nancy Allen give two fine performances, adding disarming levels of charm to their scenes together. Jack is ultimately a character haunted by his past and escaping to the movies like so many do when they watch them. Nancy is another disheartened dreamer, a make-up artist stuck in a department store, whose aspirations aim high at the movies. They have terrific chemistry, and create an on-screen rhythm that is sorely lacking in most films today.
Blow Out is a film of terrific set pieces, but ones used to intimately serve the story rather than a series of separate action sequences. In fact, the most impressive may be Jack’s sound studio; a labyrinth of compiled sound tapes that also dates the movie in the present digital world. De Palma has terrific fun shooting this room. In one scene he circles the room as if he were a sound recording spinning on a turntable, watching as Jack goes about his hectic conspiracy business.
Though the movie builds rapidly up to several releases of tension, the Liberty Bell Parade that provides the climax is what it has been hurtling toward all along. Nancy, who is wired so Jack can hear her, goes to hand over the tape to a man she believes to be an evening news reporter but is actually Burke. De Palma continues to keep us alongside Travolta instead of stepping back because he can hear Nancy through an earpiece instead of just us. This provides a frantic chase around Philly’s 30th Street Station and then the streets themselves as he tries to locate her and the murderer.
You know you’re watching a movie throughout the entirety of Blow Out, but De Palma’s genius is in seducing an audience into his vision without succumbing to the trappings of any genre.
“I think De Palma has sprung to the place that Altman achieved with films such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville and that Coppola reached with the two Godfather movies—that is, to the place where genre is transcended and what we’re moved by is an artist’s vision,” Pauline Kael said in her review (reprinted in the Criterion DVD booklet).
De Palma scales such admirable heights in this movie that the pop filth he loves making, however well done, seems almost like a different director (one that he may have borrowed from.) With Blow Out, he establishes himself as an artist with the power to use his vision to entertain. He also records in the annals of film history one film that deserves to be remembered and discussed forever.