Written and Directed by Brian DePalma
By the time I was 10 years old, I had become a cinema enthusiast. I became so enamored and enthralled by the art and artistry of the movies that I just wanted to see anything and everything that I was able. Every film, whether I even understood it or not, became an essential piece or stepping stone of an on-going education that has ultimately sustained me throughout my life. By the time, I came to Writer/Director Brian DePalma’s psychological thriller “Blow Out," I thought myself to be mature enough to tackle a film created in decidedly darker thematic waters. As I think about it now, and although that film did prepare me for the films I would see in the future, I may have ultimately been wrong.
I say this because DePalma brought me into a world of such unrepentant luridness and non-empathy that it altered my perceptions of cinematic storytelling as well as the world at large. And then there was the film’s startling climax and ending to deal with. Director Milos Forman’s “Hair” (1978) was the first film I saw that gave me an “unhappy ending,” the kind of which that changes everything you had seen before and completely re-paints any ideas you had of what a film could be. The unforgiving final moments of “Blow Out” devastated and disturbed me to such a point that I actually never re-watched the film again until very recently.
For this edition of “Savage Cinema Revisits,” I would like to present and celebrate DePalma’s classic film which is arguably his finest work in a career that has seen him tackle a Stephen King adaptation (1976’s “Carrie”), various Hitchcock inspired thrillers (most notably 1980’s “Dressed To Kill”), wildly inventive gangster epics (1983’s “Scarface” and 1987’s “The Untouchables”), a Vietnam war film (1989’s “Casualties Of War”) and even one ahead of its time rock musical/horror film hybrid (1974’s “Phantom Of The Paradise”). While DePalma utilizes many of his trademark visual tricks of the trade from continuous long takes to clever usages of the split-screen that illustrates two completely different yet corresponding acts simultaneously, this time the visual razzle dazzle is not simply at the hand of pastiche or style for style's sake. For “Blow Out,” every cinematic technique is at the service of a story that, on the surface, appears to be nothing more than an adult themed, politically tinged pulse-pounder yet is actually a labyrinthine examination of movies, movie-making and the continuously blurring line between fantasy and reality.
A feverishy intense John Travolta stars in one of his finest performances as Jack Terry, a sound effects man toiling away his existence and talents for a series of nudie/slasher exploitation films. Late one night while recording sound effects for his latest movie project, Jack hears the sounds of a car barreling down the road, which is followed by what seems to be either the sound of a tire blowing out, a gunshot or perhaps even both. After the car crashes and submerges into the lake below, Jack dives in and rescues a young woman (Nancy Allen) trapped inside. Upon recuperation and police questioning at the hospital, Jack not only learns that the rescued woman is a prostitute named Sally Bedina but that there was a dead man in the car as well…Presidential Candidate George McRyan.
As Jack befriends Sally and replays the events of the night in his mind, he realizes that he just may have actually recorded no mere accident but a political assassination. Obsessively through his sound recordings and camera equipment at the film studio, Jack begins to piece together the fateful night and the closer he arrives to the truth, the greater his and Sally‘s lives continue to fall into perilous danger.
At its most basic level as an adult thriller, “Blow Out” operates at the very top of the line. Intricately plotted and executed with a complete arsenal of well-drawn characters and terrific performances (John Lithgow is especially chilling), Brian DePalma brings the paranoia to vivid and disquieting life. In many ways, “Blow Out” serves as a companion piece to Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” (1974) which also weaved a tale of paranoia, corruption and murder as filtered through audio technology combined with a potentially fractured mind.
Yet, it is that potentially fractured mind (or minds) in particular that I would like to concentrate on the most because DePalma is clearly attempting to send a message to the audience. “Blow Out” is essentially a movie about movies. Through this particular story, I think that he is exploring the character’s and our relationship with the movies and how a world of fantasy not only provides an escape from our daily lives but how those fantasies can shape and alter our daily lives, almost making one indistinguishable from the other. DePalma achieves this feat through a miraculous blending of storytelling and the cinematic tools of the trade, which achieves some stunning juxtapositions. In short, DePalma is deeply effective is having us become involved with a movie while always being aware that we are indeed watching a movie.
By making his lead character of Jack Terry a sound effects specialist and observing him reconstruct the scene of the crime through the usages of sound, we become as conscious of how sound is utilized in the movies just as intricately as he is. As Jack gathers his sound equipment to manufacture movie sound effects of wind, door creaks, and the like, we, the audience, also become acutely tuned into the fact that nearly every sound effect in “Blow Out” was most likely manufactured on some sound stage or recording studio somewhere in Hollywood. DePalma also cleverly enlists the usage of Composer Pino Donaggio’s film score to rework our cinematic senses. The music toys with our cemented notions of heroism, the “damsel in distress” and the “white knight” to the rescue only to completely pull the rug out from under us. Quite possibly, DePalma may even be toying with our perceptions and movie memories of some of the film’s actors, most notably Travolta himself. While I have no idea of knowing for certain, I could not help but to wonder if his underwater rescue of Nancy Allen’s character was a nod to a moment from “Grease” (1978)! Remember that one lyric from the song “Summer Nights”? “I saved her life/She nearly drowned…”
In “Blow Out,” we are consistently pulled out of the fantasy of the movie while we are simultaneously enveloped by that fantasy. The artifice and the truth of the filmmaking process have become completely intertwined as DePalma somehow and masterfully demystifies the movie making process while also upholding the magic of motion picture storytelling.
Yet, within the world of “Blow Out,” those same juxtapositions run even deeper. The look of the film is appropriately filthy. DePalma envisions a seedy and ugly world where political assassinations, police corruption, hookers, dirty movies, serial killers, lies and deceit rule the day. The virtuous and the crusaders never truly succeed, the innocent are murdered and the criminals almost always remain unscathed and unpunished. No wonder everyone seemingly wants to lose themselves in the fantasies and dreams of the movies.
Jack Terry is a wounded and haunted man who has retreated from the harsh realities of life into the illicit wonderland of the movies where crime and punishment is all make believe. I would hate to ruin the surprises contained in the film’s opening sequences but what I will divulge is that from the film’s outset, Jack is on the search for the perfect scream to be utilized for the climactic scream of the movie within “Blow Out.” But once the “real world” circumstances of the story require him to leave the fantasy world of the movies and re-engage with life and death reality, the two worlds actually converge instead of remaining on parallel lines. By the time we reach that aforementioned conclusion that shocked me so much and rattles me still, the lines have been irrevocably distorted. The film’s most agonizing sounds set in the real world are merged with the joyless fantasy of the movie within the movie, leaving Jack Terry broken, only being able to respond with crippling anguish.
In fact, as I ruminate, write about this film and even look at the still image I selected for this posting, I wonder an alternate title for this film could have been “The American Scream.” Although this film was released 30 years ago, the messages contained therein feel more than prevalent now, especially in our media obsessed, “reality” television popular culture where everyone is famous, more desensitized than ever and the lines of the real world and the fantasy world are increasingly interchangeable.
I highly recommend you seek out this movie through your movie renting sources, especially now as the spectacular Criterion Collection has just re-released “Blow Out” as a two disc set featuring new interviews with Brian DePalma, Nancy Allen plus other bells and whistles. But, the main event is the film itself, which feels like the final threads of the challenging, provocative cinema of the 1970s reaching through the screen. Films which often dealt with themes of voyeurism, conspiracies, political anxieties, tortuously intricate corruption and the fragility of the truth.
Yet, no matter the decade, with "Blow Out," Brian DePalma delivers the goods artfully, brilliantly and murderously.