By 1981, Brian De Palma was well into his ’Hitchcock period’, a string of films in the late 70s going back to 1973’s Sisters, but really starting with 1976’s Obsession, followed by Carrie that same year and then The Fury (1978) and Dressed to Kill (1980), which mashed together Alfred Hitchcock‘s most famous suspense set pieces with a tone of sleazy exploitation and dreamy cinematic bravura. The success of Carrie notwithstanding, Blow Out was arguably De Palma's most accomplished of these films.
Blow Out (1981) dir. Brian de Palma
Starring: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz, John Lithgow
By Alan Bacchus
Not all Blu-rays produce the same high quality. You know that type of pristine high-def imagery that makes a movie you’ve seen a dozen times seem as fresh as seeing it for the first time on the big screen. Not all HD conversions go to the original negative or have the painstaking effort and money to digitally remove scratches and imperfections. Not all BD releases time the movie again so the colours are as originally intended by the cinematographer and director. Criterion does this, and who knows how Brian de Palma’s 1981 thriller classic Blow Out would have looked under just another no frills studio effort.
Thankfully, the marvellous imagery of Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC is lovingly preserved and enhanced by the new Criterion Collection edition on Blu-ray. There’s a shot in the middle of the film of John Lithgow seen from behind standing on the top level of a mall looking down at his intended victim (Nancy Allen) descending an escalator. The shot looks so fucking good I got that same ‘feeling’ when I first bought my HD TV and saw high-definition images for the first time.
This shot is superlative, and the rest of the movie meets this standard. A film like this needs to be in this top shape to truly appreciate it, and few directors have relied on visuals as much as De Palma.
In terms of cinematic set pieces, personally I think Dressed to Kill trumps them all, but Blow Out feels like his most complete and resonant of these films – a film that caught the 70s paranoia genre a tad late but fits in well with the untrustworthiness felt by the general populace after the Watergate cover-up.
Here, John Travolta, playing Jack Terry, a sound man for a lame b-movie production house, who, while recording effects for his latest b-horror film, accidently records a car accident of a prominent political candidate. After he saves a naïve young gal, Sally (Nancy Allen), who is not the senator’s wife, the seeds of a conspiracy start spinning in his brain. But what’s really eating Jack is the sound of a gunshot just before the crash. When a newspaper prints the frame-by-frame still photos of the accident caught by a photographer, Jack gets the idea to sync up the images with his sound reel to prove the existence of a murder and a cover-up.
This leads us to the film’s key set piece, a scene cut using mostly close-ups of Jack going through the steps to sync the picture and sounds of the accident. It’s not a murder scene and De Palma uses almost no sound, certainly no music – just the sound of the syncing device doing the work. It’s riveting stuff and one of the high-water marks of De Palma’s career.
It fits into one of the recurring themes in his career – the self-reflexive nature of the filmmaking process and the self-awareness in most of these thrillers. In a film like Obsession, the audience is aware they are watching a very specific homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. In Body Double, there’s a movie within a movie, which references a particular scene in Dressed to Kill, which in and of itself steals a number of scenes from Hitchcock, including Vertigo and Psycho. But crafting a suspense scene out of the technical craft of filmmaking adds another level of cinematic enjoyment to Blow Out.
As usual, the film is also spotty with its performances. Nancy Allen’s cartoonish characterization of the dollish Sally, who, after being saved by Travolta, becomes the target of the diabolical Lithgow, is a 180 degree turn from Travolta's surprisingly sympathetic heroic portrayal of Jack. It’s better than Cliff Robertson’s performance in Obsession, which makes it probably the best performance ever directed by De Palma.
But to give Nancy Allen some credit, she was De Palma’s wife at the time and was shamelessly given a shallow and vacant character to try and bring to life, not that dissimilar from her role in Dressed to Kill. On the BD special features, a new interview reveals her reservations about the role and her struggle to find her character’s motivation. That said, despite the over-the-top airhead depiction, Allen is naturally sincere and honest, and even though her acting chops are suspect, she’s still lovely to look at.
And one of the reasons Blow Out resonates emotionally more than any of De Palma’s other films is because of Allen’s on-screen chemistry with Travolta. The slo-mo chase finale beneath the 4th of July fireworks, which is superbly choreographed and executed, is deeply tragic. And months after the violent confrontation, De Palma finishes the film with a touching denouement showing Travolta at his most tender and heartwarming – a great actor in his prime.
Blow Out is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.