“Blow-Out”: Brian DePalma’s Masterpiece

Though I was happy Criterion was doing an edition of Brian De Palma’s 1981 “Blow Out,” I had some trepidation that it would not live up to my memories of the film as one of the greatest of the “paranoid thrillers”—a misnamed genre in that the paranoia always underestimated the extent and ruthlessness of the conspiracies. Not everyone regarded the movie as highly as I did in 1981 (Pauline Kael provided good company though). Like “Vertigo” in its time (1958), “Blow Out” was a commercial flop.

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Like Peter Bodganovich and the Cahiers du cinema critics turned directors, De Palma had considerable knowledge and great admiration for earlier masters, especially Alfred Hitchcock, and especially Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” And even the title “Blow Out” is in part a conscious homage to Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” in which a photographer became obsessed with trying to show (himself) there had been a murder… and eventually blows up the image to the point where it is all grain in which nothing is clear.

But let’s veer back to the opening of “Blow Out”: a trashy slasher movie. Only after a shower knifing (invoking Hitchcock’s “Psycho”… and De Palma’s “Psycho” homage “Dressed to Kill”) do we move out of that movie. The scream is inadequate. John Travolta, playing a character named Jack Terry, is the soundman who has been coasting on reusing the same sounds, including that of the wind. According to De Palma, the genesis of “Blow Out” was his own sound editor (Michel Moyse) reusing wind sounds.

Jack goes out to a Philadelphia park creekside and is recording an owl when he hears squealing tires, what sounds like a shot, and is horrified to see a car plunge through the railing of a bridge into the creek (I guess that if a car can be submerged in it, it must be a river?).

Jack rushes down, jumps in, and with considerable difficulty pulls a panicked woman from the back seat. Sally (the acutely claustrophobic Nancy Allen, then Mrs. De Palma, says she was not acting but was genuinely freaked out). Why was she in the backseat is a question that did not immediately occur to me (even on my second viewing three decades after the first).

In the hospital, a policeman (Tom McCarthy, future Baltimore Sun editor on “The Wire”) begins the damage control work of obliterating Sally from the scene of the “accident” in which a governor, who was polling far ahead of the incumbent president, died. There is no question that there is a conspiracy to cover-up the dalliance of the man on the way to becoming president, even though he was now dead.

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Relatively soon, a second conspiracy is also beyond doubt. Sally worked with sleazeball photographer Manny Karp (Dennis Franz, who had first made an impression in De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill”) compromising men on behalf of wives seeking divorces and alimony. Manny was on the scene, the figure clambering back up, onto, and across the bridge while Jack is rescuing Sally.

Also quite early, Burke (John Lithgow) switches the tire with bullet holes (entry and exit) to a blow out (that is, a shot-out with an imploded blown-out one).

So, there is the coverup of the dead governor’s reputation. The question (still!) is whether there are two cover-ups or three. Were Burke, Karp and Sally all working for one coverup on behalf of the incumbent president? Or were there two conspiracies to take him out of the race? Burke clearly exceeded his mission and goes really, really far, killing girls who look like Sally so that when he eliminates her her killing will be attributed to a serial killer rather than to a political conspiracy involving the killing of the presidential front-running candidate.

Jack is obsessed with matching the sound he recorded to the photographs Manny shot (and sold to a newsmagazine) with the aid of Sally… who is being stalked by Burke. There is no official interest in the assassination of the presumptive next president. Detective Mackey (John Aquino) is the face of that skepticism.

No one except Jack (and Burke) cares. The schlock-picture opening is redeemed by the ending with a very real scream (Nancy Allen’s, De Palma attests). That opening was what I was most dubious about the first time I saw the movie, but recording new material is the catalyst for the plot. The numbness at the end foreshadows what I find so great at the end of “The Pledge,” another movie I eagerly champion. The stakes are much higher and the loss greater here than there or in “Blow-Up” or “The Conversation.”

Especially when Jack is synching his sound recording with Karp’s images, “Blow Out” obviously becomes a movie about making movies. De Palma had experience of synching sound and image the old (nondigital way) and drew on it. There is a famous 1620-degree pan around Jack’s studio that would have warmed the heart of Max Ophuls, and fireworks (the annual Mummer’s Parade) that would have pleased Hitchcock (To Catch a Thief), I think. And De Palma upped the ante of no one except the technician caring from “Blow-up and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation.”

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In the sometimes rather technical interview conducted in 2010 by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg) De Palma is explicit about his admiration for and consciousness then of “Blow Up” and “The Conversation,” and has interesting war stories, including the increased scale of production when John Travolta wanted to be in it, Travolta wanting Nancy Allen (with whom he had worked on De Palma’s “Carrie”), and the disaster of the negatives of the finale being stolen (necessitating reshooting in which Lazlo Kovacs stepping in when his great Hungarian-American compatriates Vilmos Zsigmond was committed elsewhere. And De Palma confirms that he was a JFK assassination conspiracy consumer.

Even De Palma’s most dubious movies look good, and “Blow Out” looks great (in addition to his great cinematographers and his own discerning eye and native-son familiarity with Philadelphia, set designer/scout Paul Sylbert deserves and receives credit).

The Criterion edition includes the fervent championing of the movie by Pauline Kael (reprinted in Taking It All In), which I have forced myself not to reread (yet) and another essay by Michael Sragow. The disc of bonus features, besides the hour-long Baumbach-De Palma interview, has a 2010 one with Nancy Allen (which makes obvious that she is not a ditz like Sally, that is, that she was acting, except in her real panic in the car filling up with water). Both range over other De Palma movies and are essential to anyone interested in De Palma’s body of work. A third interview feature is with Garrett Brown, the inventor of the Steadicam, who talks about its early deployment in making “Blow Out.” Plus the original theatrical trailer and some production stills shot by Louis Goldman.

Also included is his first (very low-budget) feature film, “Murder à la Mod” (1968), which Karp watches on his tv in “Blow Out.” Though I am interested in De Palma, I didn’t find “Murder à la Mod” essential. Admittedly, it prefigures “Blow Out” in having a sleaze film-maker tracking down a murderer, and shows De Palma’s apprentice grappling with technique and leitmotifs of his later work. On the one hand, purchasers of the Criterion edition get a lot on the bonus disc. On the other, those wanting the great “Blow Out” are saddled with the minor-interest “Murder à la Mod.” This tempts me to rate the DVD 4 stars, but since my intent is to champion the movie (especially in full knowledge that its greatness is not universally recognized even now, and that Criterion is not infallible in what it includes), my 5-star rating of the movie wins out. And De Palma supervised the 1080p transfer, so the picture quality of the DVD is phenomenal.

John Travolta (whom I suspect is not as intelligent as Jack) is not on the bonus disc, but his greatest performance is on the main one.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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3 thoughts on ““Blow-Out”: Brian DePalma’s Masterpiece”

  1. Well done. The lack of a simple phone towards the end always bugged me (an attempt at making one might have been a shot that was lost in the robbery of some of the reels and never re-shot for budget reasons). It would be a spoiler if I mentioned more. A great movie nonetheless for the reasons you mentioned. Excellent write-up as usual.

    Liked by 1 person

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