Despite some ecstatic notices upon release (notably from Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert) Blow Out was a commercial flop. Released during a summer season dominated by escapist entertainments like Raiders of the Lost Arc, For Your Eyes Only, Superman II, and The Cannonball Run, audiences were perhaps not in the mood for compromised, flawed characters and a bleak (some might say callous) tone. The summer of 81 had some notorious flops – the biggest being Universal’s colossal dud The Legend of The Lone Ranger (history repeated itself in 2013) – Blow Out was the most unjust.
While working on an exploitation film, audio engineer Jack Terry (Travolta) goes on a nighttime recce for sound effects and inadvertently records an automobile accident. A lone car suffers a tyre blow out and crashes into a creek. Jack heroically plunges into the dark waters rescuing a young woman, but the other occupants perish. Whilst recovering in a hospital emergency room, Jack is thrown by strangely aggressive questioning by a detective, before bedlam erupts as news crews arrive. Turns out the car belonged to a Presidential candidate now deceased, Sally (Allen), the young woman he rescued, was neither the politician’s wife, nor a member of staff. Jack is persuaded into going along with a minor cover up obscuring Sally’s presence in the car to protect the senator’s reputation.
Haunted by the feeling that his sound recording does not match the official version of events, Jack persuades a reluctant Sally to help him investigate further. His suspicions are reinforced by a film of the crash taken by a cameraman testing a high speed film stock (De Palma regular Franz on dependably sleazy form). Matching photos from this film published in a muck raking tabloid to his sound recording appears to confirm that he witnessed a murder and not an accident. Jack and Sally are about to be sucked into a political conspiracy darker even than the waters that swallowed the congressman’s sedan.
This is a superb film that has gradually found an audience and earned the accolade of ‘masterpiece’. This is (in my opinion) De Palma’s finest piece of work. A fireworks display of a movie (quite literally so in one bravura sequence), the director, director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond, and editor Paul Hirsch craft a thriller in which style is substance. Very much a film about film, and especially the mysterious alchemy of sound and vision, the stunning car crash sequence is shown, re-shown, broken down, then reconstructed in a way that demands that the viewer participate in deconstructing and analysing both what they are seeing and even more crucially hearing. You can probably learn more about the art of film and sound editing from watching this blu ray than from any College Film Production 101 course.
In synopsis, the film sounds like it belongs in the seventies tradition of conspiracy thrillers (the likes of The Parallax View, All The Presidents Men, Three Days of the Condor and many more), but it really isn’t. De Palma has no real interest in the ‘why’ of the conspiracy, and even less in the motivation of the film’s primary villain. Blow Out is far more informed by the european tradition of sixties/seventies thrillers and in particular what are known as thrillers ‘a la italiana’, that is thrillers in the Italian style, popularly known outside of Italy as ‘Giallo’.
Clearly the very title of the film references Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blowup, in which a fashion photographer in swinging sixties London captures a detail of what may be a murder, but doesn’t realise so at the time. However where Antonioni’s film is oblique, meandering, and focussed on mood, De Palma’s is never more than minutes away from a major set-piece or outrageously extravagant sequence of camera moves.
In fact the filmmaker that Blow Out most evokes is the now faded Italian master of suspense Dario Argento. Like Argento’s films The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, (and to a lesser extent Cat O’ Nine Tails and Deep Red) the fulcrum of Blow Out’s plot is the hero witnessing but not initially comprehending an event. De Palma introduces a connected but secondary plot strand involving a very creepy John Lithgow committing a series of sexualised murders that allows the staging of several killings and an extended and brilliant daylight stalking sequence borrowing heavily from the great Italian thriller songbook.
In the midst of this it would be easy for the performances to be lost, but where De Palma is immeasurably superior to Argento is in his ability to attract A-list acting talent to his films (to see what a De Palma film can be like without a strong lead, watch the none-more-trashy Body Double). The film was originally written for older performers, but when Travolta expressed an interest De Palma extensively rewrote the part. The star hits it out the park with a performance that shows his range stretching beyond the slick heart-throb parts he was then famous for, and before his post Pulp Fiction slide into archness. Travolta peels back layers of character, showing the vulnerability and melancholy that makes Jack Terry one of a long line of ‘God’s lonely men’ to be found in American cinema of the seventies. Despite his looks and charm, there is a deep hurt and insecurity that has led to a life as insular and ascetic as Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul lives in Coppola’s The Conversation.
It was apparently Travolta who suggested De Palma’s then wife Nancy Allen play Sally. They had worked together some year’s before on Carrie. Allen has a string of impressive genre credits (Dressed to Kill, Strange Invaders, Robocop), sadly like many actresses with impressive genre credits (hello also to Karen Allen) she has been largely ignored and underrated. Blow Out may be her best performance, it was a ballsy move to play Sally with a Betty Boop style high pitched drawl that heightens the impression of naïvety the character exudes, but it pays off, especially in the films final stages. Travolta and Allen have great on-screen chemistry, and although the film avoids taking the easy route of establishing a romance between the characters, the sense that this is a possibility is palatable.
Everything comes together in Blow Out: De Palma is at the absolute peak of his powers as a filmmaker; the story and script are compelling; lead actors bring their A game; key collaborators Zsigmond, Hirsch, and composer Pino Donnagio (who contributes a beautifully romantic score) are from the top of their respective professions. If you haven’t seen Blow Out, this is a must buy film. If you are already a fan and don’t have the US Blu Ray from Criterion, then it is time to get reacquainted with one of the best American thrillers of the eighties.
Blow Out was re-released last year on Blu-Ray in superb editions from Criterion (US) and Arrow (UK).
This review originally appeared on ScreenJabber.com