Robin’s Underrated Gems: Blow Out (1981)

I’ve always been a die-hard fan of Brian De Palma, a filmmaker who’s had a very successful career, but will always remain a whipping boy for some cineastes who claim that he’s nothing but a copycat artist who likes to rip off Hitchcock. While it’s true that De Palma constantly borrows ideas from Hitchcock and other filmmakers, I’ve always believed that he is a master of building upon those ideas and injecting them with his own unique visual style. There are many other renowned filmmakers who’ve used that similar approach to great success, one of whom is Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino is one of De Palma’s biggest fans and has always cited one of the director’s more underrated works, Blow Out, as one of his most favourite and influential films. Tarantino claims that it was John Travolta’s performance in Blow Out that compelled him to cast Travolta in Pulp Fiction even though his career was floundering at the time. You could argue that Blow Out was the last good movie John Travolta made before he appeared in Pulp Fiction. Tarantino even decided to pay tribute to Blow Out by using an excerpt from Pino Donaggio’s score during the text messaging scene in Death Proof. The best way to describe Blow Out is that it’s a cross between Blowup and The Conversation with slasher movie overtones. The movie was not a success at the box office when it was originally released in 1981, which may be why De Palma decided to take a break from his Hitchcockian movies to direct the hugely successful Scarface afterwards. However, as the years have gone by, Blow Out still holds up as one of his more intriguing and enjoyable films.

Given the similarity between the two titles, it’s no secret that Blow Out was heavily influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, the story of a photographer who thinks he may have inadvertantly captured a murder in the background of one of his pictures. Of course, it was inevitable that some people would denounce Blow Out as a blatant rip-off before they even saw the film. Personally, however, I’ve always felt Blowup to be somewhat dull and overrated, and never really cared for how the narrative would get sidetracked from its murder mystery in order to focus on the “swingin’ sixties” subculture. I think that Blow Out is definitely a prime example of De Palma building upon someone else’s ideas and improving them. The protagonist here is Jack Terry (John Travolta), who makes a living as a sound effects technician for terrible low-budget slasher movies. One night, he is recording some sound effects near a lake when a car suddenly comes crashing off a nearby bridge into the water. Jack dives in and winds up rescuing a girl from the car named Sally (Nancy Allen), but the accident winds up taking the life of a very popular governor, who was likely on his way to becoming the next President. The governor’s handler demands that Jack keep quiet about his role in the accident since they don’t want anyone to find out that there was a prostitute in the governor’s car. Jack is very suspicious about the whole situation, but he did wind up inadvertantly recording the audio of the accident. After listening to it numerous times, he hears what clearly sounds like a gunshot right before the car’s tire blew out, meaning that the governor’s death was no accident and that he was the victim of a political conspiracy. When Jack finds out that home video footage and photographs of the accident also exist, he makes it his obsession to mesh them together with his audio in order to prove the existence of a gunshot and an assassination plot.

Jack instantly develops an affection for Sally, even though he is very suspicious about what she was doing in the car with the governor. He soon finds out that she was part of what was supposed to be smear campaign, where a sleazy private investigator named Manny Karp (Dennis Franz) would film home movies of Sally and the governor together in order to ruin his political career. However, an assassin named Burke (John Lithgow) decided to go further by shooting out the governor’s tire and getting him killed instead. Now, obviously, you can see the influence of Blowup and The Conversation in this story and it’s pretty clear that Jack wants to create a home movie that will be the second coming of the Zapruder film. Blow Out is a very unique pastiche of elements cobbled together from many other movies and the world’s most famous conspiacy theories. However, the finished product is so well edited, photographed and directed that it’s often a very exciting tour-de-force of filmmaking. Some of the best sequences in Blow Out involve Jack’s meticulous reconstruction of the images and audio from the car crash. The movie follows him step-by-step as tries to assemble the sound and the visuals into a coherent finished product that will prove his conspiracy theory is genuine, and the audience is allowed to make his discoveries right alongside him. Sure, the audio and video technology presented in Blow Out is hilariously outdated, but that’s part of the movie’s charm. Trying to uncover an assassination like this with today’s technology would be far too easy and wouldn’t be very compelling viewing, but here, it makes for riveting cinema. The film is marvellously photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, who delivers a lot of scenes which use every inch of the widescreen 2.35:1 Panavision frame. I first watched Blow Out on a fullscreen VHS many years ago and the pan-and-scan job was so atrocious that I think a lot of the impact of the film was lost. It was only after watching it on a letterboxed DVD when I finally realized how important the widescreen framing is for many of the scenes.

Blow Out definitely features one of the best performances of John Travolta’s career in what is probably his first real “adult” role after garnering so much fame by playing immature young characters. Blow Out works as more than just a visual tour-de-force because Jack is such a good, likable person who only wants to do the right thing and deserves to find justice. Even though her character’s ditziness does get to be a bit much in places, Nancy Allen delivers what may be the best performance of her career as Sally, and John Lithgow’s Burke is one of the more criminally underrated screen villains. The movie’s slasher movie overtones come from some ingeniously clever and suspenseful sequences where Burke gruesomely kills a few random young women to make it look like a serial killer is on the loose, so that when he eventually kills Sally in the same fashion, people will just assume she’s a random victim and wasn’t killed off to cover up a conspiracy. The movie’s finale, where Jack tracks Burke and Sally through a Philadelphia train station and a large Liberty Day parade in an attempt to rescue her, packs a real punch. Perhaps knowing that his detractors would attack his traditional visual stylistics in Blow Out, De Palma actually opens the film by poking fun at himself with an hilarious “film-within-a-film” point-of-view sequence from one of Jack’s terrible slasher movies. The final twist at the end of Blow Out has always been very controversial and while it’s undeniably cruel, it’s also strangely funny at the same time. Blow Out is definitely one of the strongest, most visually exciting thrillers of the 1980s, but while it has a lot of very devoted fans, it’s nowhere near as well-known as it should be. De Palma’s more iconic efforts from that period, like Scarface and The Untouchables, have probably overshadowed it, but this film deserves more recognition. People may accuse Brian De Palma of stealing other people’s ideas and think his visual style is way over-the-top, but it’s undeniable that when the guy is at the top of his game, few directors can provide a greater feeling of exhilaration while watching their films. In the case of Blow Out, he’s definitely at the top of his game.

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