“Blow Out” was considered a box office failure for director Brian De Palma and producer George Litto after the film’s release in the summer of 1981. The last of the couple’s trio of ‘Hitchcockian’ thrillers, preceded in 1976 by “Obsession” and lavishly budgeted in the wake of the previous year’s controversial hit “Dressed to Kill” (1980), it had been expected to perform well during that year’s blockbuster season -- acting as a reunion of sorts for De Palma and lead actor John Travolta, who had previously appeared in the director’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “Carrie” as a relative unknown name outside of the States, but had in the meantime skyrocketed to international stardom after his leading role in the urban disco classic “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) and the following year’s ‘50s musical extravaganza “Grease”, the highest grossing film of 1978.
However, the thinking behind this summer scheduling proved ill-founded and, after acquiring a mixture of both rave reviews and critical pannings, “Blow Out” barely managed to scrape its way into the top sixty films of that year -- which, given the high profiles and previous box office successes accumulated by De Palma and Travolta between them, qualified as a massive come down for both director and star. However, re-watching the movie today, courtesy of the stand-out HD transfer utilised by Arrow Video for its new Blu-ray release of the picture, it becomes clear to see that this self-penned work represents Brian De Palma operating at the very peak of his creative powers. Surrounded by a team of top Hollywood technicians (including outstanding contributions by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and editor Paul Hirsch) De Palma had in fact helmed here a particularly moody and suspenseful political conspiracy thriller which also functions as a detailed, fetishistic glorification of the art and practice of movie-making itself.
Travolta plays Jack Terry -- a sound technician operating out of a small editing studio above a porno cinema in the city of Philadelphia, and rather slumming it on a series of crummy exploitation horror movies (including “Blood Beach”, “Blood Beach 2”, “Bad Day at Blood Beach” and “Bordello of Blood”) while not taking his current work on the most recent slasher opus he’s been obliged to lend his talents to – “Co-Ed Frenzy” -- particularly seriously. While out recording ambient wind sound-effects for the film on a bridge one night, a Mercedes screeches off the road in front of him after one of its tyres blows out, and Jack watches in horror as it skids through a crash barrier and plunges into the murky creek below. He instinctively rushes down to the bank and dives in, managing to save from drowning the young woman occupying the passenger seat; but he is too late to rescue her male companion, who died instantly in the crash.
After accompanying the dazed woman to the hospital in order to be interviewed by the police while waiting for her to wake from her sedation, Jack learns that the man whom he failed to pull from the submerged car was a much feted presidential candidate, Governor George McRyan (John Hoffmeister), who had just announced his running in the up-coming primaries. A spin doctor, apparently from McRyan’s party, reveals that the woman who was in the car with the Governor at the time of the accident was a paid hooker, and he eventually manages to persuade a reluctant Jack not to reveal this fact to the press for the sake of the dead man’s family. However, when later reviewing the sound recording he made from the bridge at the moment of the crash, Jack becomes convinced that he also captured the report of a gunshot issuing from just before the blow out itself, and that the whole incident was therefor in reality a planned assassination, carried out by Government authorities with the aim of discrediting and removing a popular and charismatic political opponent.
Knowing the police will never believe ‘another conspiracy nut’, Jack teams up with the hooker he rescued from the wreck -- a naive and easily manipulated innocent called Sally Bedina (Nancy Allen) – to help him investigate the scandal. Using his film-making skills he manages to synch his audio recording with a series of snaps sold for profit to the newspapers and taken for that purpose by a man who later turns out to be Sally’s pimp (“Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue” regular Dennis Franz -- here blessed with the wonderfully Dickensian name Manny Karp), who was almost certainly paid by the conspirators knowing Sally would likely be killed in the resultant crash too. However, none of them knows that the whole operation has been conceived by a rogue, sociopathic right wing agent called Burke (John Lithgow), who has now also taken it upon himself to dispose of the few remaining ‘loose ends’ thrown up by Jack and Sally’s prying, using as his cover the upcoming street jubilee which is to take place in celebration of the centenary of the ringing of the Liberty Bell – that proud symbol of American independence -- and the city of Philadelphia’s role in the founding of democracy in the United States.
This Philadelphian backdrop of celebration in optimistic reference to American political independence, allows De Palma to tie the movie to the lay out of the city he was partially raised in as a boy, imbuing the story with a political subtext that forms a commentary on the country’s history of political corruption, and which becomes integral to the narrative but doesn’t explicitly interfere in the thriller dynamics of the film at all. Even the art direction is commandeered for this cause: not only do the stars and stripes of the American flag appear again and again in various deeply ironic contexts, but the film is also carefully colour co-ordinated so that everything from hotel wallpapers and props and clothing combinations frequently include the colours red and blue in close proximity with white -- almost every scene as a result subliminally contributing to and ramming home the idea that corruption, dirty tricks and murder are being implemented in the name of American democracy, sullying its core ideals; thus, the public background of celebratory patriotism against which the conspiracy plays itself out becomes a veneer used to obscure a tawdry reality; and in this regard the events surrounding the conspiracy actually depicted in the movie also have a certain resonance with real-life political scandals such as Watergate and the Chappaquiddick incident, connecting a film more usually discussed with reference to its explicit quotation of several other films (namely Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” and Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow Up”) to the more politically left-leaning works found in the early portion of De Palma’s career.
Yet the film is nonetheless crafted as a straightforward thriller, which can be appreciated on a surface level with complete unawareness that it also harbours these latent dimensions of satirical comment. De Palma simultaneously sculpts and hones his ever-evolving suite of stylistic techniques to the pitch of perfection with this particular movie, employing virtuoso use of camera movement, his familiar Warholian split-screen trope, torturous slow motion and sympathetic use of music to create a kind of ballet which elongates the viewer’s agonised suspense right up to the film’s taut, suspenseful climax -- which unspools amid pools of Suspiria-esque neon blue and red gel lighting, ostensibly from a firework display bathing the city’s grand historically associative architecture in surrealistic swathes of patriotic colour as the pessimistic conclusion unfolds in agonising slow-mo.
That De Palma’s heightened display of artfully stylish filmmaking craft works so well here can be attributed to the film’s unusually successful marriage of pure technique with a strong emotional substance that remains central to the viewer’s engagement with the narrative and keeps the film focused on the development of character and, in particular, the central relationship between Jack and Sally, even in the midst of some of the director’s most bravura displays. Jack’s personal obsession with getting at the truth behind the assassination plot (and doing so through interpreting sound and re-creating the accident scene with audio and photography) is grounded in a backstory where it is established that he once worked as a wire-taper for the police, during which time an operation went wrong that led to the death of a colleague. His guilt over this is what makes him so determined not to let the murderous activities of the shadowy forces responsible for McRyan’s death go unexposed, but it is his ultimate tragedy that, as a result, this obsession ends up putting the life of the woman he initially saved in just as grave a danger.
Sally becomes a sort of personification of the American public at large: getting on with life day-to-day, and unaware of the serpentine machinations being performed in the country’s name by dangerous politically power-drunk forces. Travolta and Nancy Allen manage to establish a likeable and mostly believable relationship between their two characters thanks mainly to the rapport the performers already shared because of their previous appearance together in De Palma’s “Carrie”. Indeed it was Travolta who supposedly requested Allen play the role of Sally -- De Palma had initially been reluctant to use her because he didn’t want to have his then-wife to end up with a reputation for only appearing in his films. In the end, the off-screen friendship between Travolta and Allen works to the movie’s benefit, though. There are fleeting moments of improvisation which manage to make it into the movie (such as an instance during the scene in the bar, when Travolta unexpectedly whispers something in Nancy’s ear that makes her spontaneously laugh), that do more to cement the sense of a burgeoning relationship between Jack the obsessional loner and Sally the child-like innocent, than anything the screenplay actually provides for the two actors to work with.
Possibly Allen’s character suffers as a result of being so thinly written on the page, as her role amounts to little more than yet another iteration of the kind hearted hooker cliché; and to add insult to injury, Sally isn’t exactly written as being the brightest of characters. For instance, it’s necessary (for the convenience of the plot) that at one point she is shown to be unaware what a supposedly famous newscaster, who appears nightly on the evening news, actually looks like, in order that she should be willing to march cheerfully off to a remote corner of the Philadelphian subway system with John Lithgow’s murderous conspirator Burke, who’s posing as the said newscaster in order to retrieve a piece of evidence from her before luring her to her doom. Indeed, Lithgow’s character is also rather a one dimensional cypher -- essentially acting alone out of right wing political convictions that appear to be grounded in nothing more than rabid psychopathy! Lithgow only gets a handful of scenes of dialogue in which to shine but he is effective in conveying the rogue operative’s demented take on his patriotism through the clipped militaristic tone of voice he uses when discussing his seedy activities, which include brutally murdering a succession of hookers -- chosen because they look like Sally – so that when he eventually comes to murder his real target no-one will look upon the crime as being anything other than the latest handiwork of the Liberty Bell slasher. There’s a deliciously macabre black humour inherent to the notion of someone transforming themselves into a serial killer out of a supposed patriotic duty to their country and it is not lost on Lithgow’s performance of the role, which seems alive to the comedic aspects of the situation, despite the bleakness of the surrounding material.
The film was originally written with older performers in mind, and had to be substantially re-tooled in order to include Travolta in the lead role. As a result, the actor’s charismatic presence also helps to tie the movie even more closely to the Italian giallo tradition than any of Brian De Palma’s other movies, except for perhaps “Dressed to Kill”. In particular, it borrows numerous elements from some of Dario Argento’s best peak period thrillers: the Jack Terry character is very much in the Argento tradition of ineffectual male leads, such as David Hemmings’ Marcus Daly in “Deep Red” (a film which was also partly inspired by Antonioni’s “Blow Up”, in which Hemmings also starred), Leigh McCloskey’s Mark Elliot in “Inferno” and Tony Musante who played Sam Dalmas in “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”. The latter film shares an even closer association with “Blow Out” in that its plot also includes the idea of an audio tape providing a clue that helps to piece together the elements of a mystery. Argento’s follow-up thriller “The Cat O’Nine Tails” also depends on an auditory perceptual clue helping to uncover a conspiracy, after a blind crossword puzzle-maker with sensitive hearing, played by Carl Malden, overhears fragments of a conversation that turn out to be relevant to a murder that occurs soon afterwards.
Argento’s cinema during this period was also very much associated with the kind of operatic use of the camera (almost as though it were a character in its own right) as is seen throughout “Blow Out”, being used by De Palma in order to establish an eerie sense of voyeurism with its emphasis on gliding crane shots that allow us to peek through upper storey windows, lengthy dolly shots and steadicam use stalking characters through corridors and across subway platforms or through crowded Philly streets, and the director’s deployment of a delirious 360 degree, five-spin camera rotation around Jack’s studio – an operation that would have been a complex logistical nightmare to execute at the time this film was made, since battery operated cameras did not exist during this period, and lengthy coils of cable would have been required. However, the film also differs from both the giallo and also from standard conspiracy thrillers of the era in that it lets us in on all the details behind the plot pretty early on, and shows us numerous scenes that the Jack and Sally characters are not even privy to, so that we come to know more about the danger they’re courting than they ever do themselves until it’s too late. Thus, despite the fact that it concentrates on Jack’s meticulous use of his film skills to piece together events intended to be hidden from public gaze, the film remains truest of all to the Hitchcockian principles of suspense that De Palma’s thrillers had by this point come to be most associated with; although this particular film is also open to the same criticism that met Hitchcock’s 1936 thriller “Sabotage” in the way it similarly handles the pay-off to a sympathetic character being placed in mortal jeopardy.
Despite owing such obvious debts and harbouring the usual Hitchcock allegiances, “Blow Out” is more notable still for its development of De Palma’s own increasingly distinctive visual style, implemented here in pursuit of the film’s unique means of portraying Jack’s perceptual interrogation of his surroundings through sound. De Palma’s use of the split diopter lens, and of other split screen techniques, in order to obtain deep focus for objects both in close-up and in the extreme distance of the frame at the same time, even while shooting within a widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio, are seen in their most radical form with this movie, where the director creates his most abstract juxtapositions of images in order to show visually how, for instance, Jack’s recording equipment makes even the faintest sound of a frogs croaking or an owl hooting by a riverbank, dominate his audio-perceptual understanding of the scene in question. Paul Hirsch’s editing is equally dynamic and important in visually portraying Jack’s shifts of perception while listening back to his recording, as he attempts to unravel the tangle of audio clues latent in the material he’s assembled. Similarly, Jack’s use of animation techniques in order to marry his audio with a selection of still photographs of the crime scene taken from a newspaper, becomes an detailed examination of the physical mechanics (circa 1980 … these days it would all be performed on a computer, of course) of editing and synching – the spinning of tape through reels and capstans, and the actual process of cutting and splicing the material of the film in order to assemble a constructed version of reality, being itself interrogated by the same methods used by Jack Terry on the screen.
All the artistry and filmmaking skills used by Jack to try and get at the reality behind the deception, are also the same ones used by him in the construction of the cheapo Co-Ed Slasher movie which opens the film with a witty five minute tour through every slasher cliché imaginable, most of them revolving around half-naked girls in a variety of sexualised contexts being perved on and then slashed by a maniac lurking outside their dorm rooms. Jack’s acute boredom with his job is crystallised by his willingness to make do with the hopeless death squeak issuing from the actress whose been employed by his producer to appear in the shower scene murder scene, presumably for reasons unrelated to her ability to scream convincingly on cue. Jack’s producer’s attempts to dub the sequence with a more convincingly terror-stricken shriek becomes a running gag that’s returned to periodically throughout the rest of the movie, but it pays off with a grim coda connecting in the most ironic fashion Jack’s work on this throwaway B-picture with his obsessive attempts to uncover the central conspiracy at the heart of the narrative.
Steadicam inventor and operator Garrett Brown also played the hunched killer whose point of view we’re actually taking throughout this opening tour-de-force (presumably the mirror ball that is seen in one of the neon-drenched college rooms as the killer watches some scantily clad Coed girls disco dancing beneath it, was a sly wink at Travolta’s “Saturday Night Fever” past!) in a scene which contains in microcosm all the techniques De Palma later uses in a more sustained artistic manner in the body of the film proper. Both slasher prologue and the rest of “Blow Out” are scored with perhaps composer Pino Donaggio’s best and most diverse music for De Palma, featuring a combination of lush orchestral and woodwind instrumental cues, together with forays into the kind of pounding Italian prog rock jamboree that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a Lucio Fulci movie of this vintage. Donaggio’s inventive flip-flopping of musical styles, used in combination with De Palma’s avant-garde system of visual stylisation, reaches its apotheosis during the climactic high point of the movie: the Jubilee firework celebrations over city hall, which inform the setting of the final agonisingly protracted suspense set-piece of the movie. The memorable music cue Donaggio uses for this sequence, and which brings both the technical inventiveness and the emotional core of the film to a head, was also affectingly appropriated by De Palma enthusiast Quentin Tarantino for a scene in his “Death Proof”.
“Blow Out” is a film which has greatly improved with age, and now begins to look very much like being Brian De Palma’s most satisfying artistic achievement. It looks stunning in this director approved and supervised restored digital transfer too, which strikes the best possible balance in preserving the look of the original film while bringing as many of the benefits supplied by the increased clarity of HD as possible. The original uncompressed 2.0 stereo PCM audio sounds good, and the disc includes optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing. The four featurettes gathered here as extras are all excellent and highly informative. “Black and White in Colour” is a an interview with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who provides an account of his working relationship with De Palma over the years, beginning on “Obsession” and continuing on and off throughout both their careers up to “The Black Dahlia”. Most of the discussion is about the photography on “Blow Out” but Zsigmond also talks about some of his other work on several other De Palma movies during this engrossing 28 minute interview.
“Rag Doll Memories: Nancy Allen on Blow Out” is an extremely interesting interview with the lead actress, who talks about her casting in the film and her conception of the character of Sally, and about her reaction to the varied responses to her performance in the press. “Return to Philadelphia: an interview with producer George Litto” is an 18 minute featurette in which the film’s producer talks about how he managed to raise most of the finance for the movie before the screenplay had even been written, such was the selling power of Brian De Palma’s name at the time. He also talks about the casting of Travolta and Allen and about the re-shoots which became necessary after a reel of film was stolen during the filming of the car chase scene near the end. Finally, “Multi-Tracking Blow Out – An Interview with composer Pino Donaggio” is an absolute must for all fans of ‘70s film music, as the composer provides a complete overview of his career (including an early outing as a pop singer in Italy), discusses his writing methods and talks in detail about his approach to the writing of the score for “Blow Up” in a way that very much enhances one’s appreciation of it.
Also included is a photo gallery of on-set photos by photographer Louis Goldman and a theatrical trailer; there’s a forty-page collector’s booklet with new writing by Michael Atkinson and a discussion between Brian De Palma and Quentin Tarantino, which comes with the disc in both its standard and Steelbook forms; and the standard edition also includes a reversible sleeve, featuring a choice between the original poster and some newly commissioned artwork.
This is an excellent release from Arrow Video, even by their own recent high standards. Both the film transfer and the extras package make this a stunning celebration of one of Brian De Palma’s most revered works.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing But the Night!