Blow Out (1981)


Written and Directed by Brian De Palma

Starring John Travolta, Nancy Allen. John Lithgow, Dennis Franz

Tagline: Murder has a sound all of its own!

Trivia: One of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films, the reason he cast John Travolta in Pulp Fiction.

Blow Out is bookended with two screams: one comically feeble; the other chilling and unbearable. One the last great paranoid thrillers, Blow Out ends with a gut punch that could ruin a good night. John Travolta stars as Jack Terry,  a sound technician for low budget horror movies.  One night while recording sounds he witnesses a fatal “car accident” involving a presidential candidate.  Travolta exudes a generational weariness throughout, a changing of the guard from Flower Power to Reagan.

De Palma hit a creative peak with Blow Out.  Not only are his stylistic signatures on full display, there’s a raw pathos running through the story.  Blow Out is directly related to two other films, Antonioni’s Blow Up from 1966 and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation from 1974, both movies that experiment with perceptions of reality and how technology mystifies rather than clarifies real world events.

After the witnessing the accident, Jack jumps into the creek and saves Sally (Nancy Allen), a call girl in the car with the Governor.  Officials tell him to forget about the incident, but Jack befriends Sally as they both realize their lives are in danger.  Jack’s sad backstory is revealed in a heart wrenching flashback.  All the characters in Blow Out are damaged.

Another curious aspect of Blow Out is De Palma’s fascination with sleazy characters, especially the repellant ones who do the bidding of those in power.  John Lithgow takes a sadistic turn as an assassin who impersonates a serial killer, but he actually is a serial killer.  How messed up is that? And Dennis Franz as a slimy schemer oozes creepiness, wearing a tank top with tomato sauce stains still turns my stomach.  The unholy alliance between low and high class scum circles the forces of virtue in De Palma’s universe.

Like Kubrick’s The Shining, symbols of America are everywhere.  The climax, filmed during the Liberty Day Parade in Philadelphia, features an orgy of patriotic fervor juxtaposed with murder and mayhem in what Pauline Kael described as “urban gothic.” While made in the Chappaquiddick/Watergate/Waiting for Reagan milieu, Blow Out feels more devastating and real these days, one where the levers power have crystalized into ominous abstractions.



American Nightmare as Slasher Pastiche


As the screen fades away into the bliss out, the images in Blow Out persist in memory.  A triumph of sound design and cinematography, De Palma pulls all the stops including split diopter shots, split screens, 360 shots, slow motion, and Steadicam in a pleasing harmony of cinematic space.





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