Monday, November 20, 2017

Blow Out (1981)

Brian De Palma
1981 • 107 Minutes • 2.35 : 1 • United States
Filmways Pictures

Cast: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz
Screenplay: Brian De Palma
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Producer: George Litto


National Society of Film Critics Awards
2nd place - NSFC Award
Best Cinematography - Vilmos Zsigmond


It's a good scream. It's a good scream.


Jack (Travolta) is a sound effects master, recording some real-life sounds for a low-grade slasher movie one night when a speeding car blows a tire and crashes into a nearby river. Jack jumps into action to try and save the passengers. The driver, unfortunately already dead, Jack is still able to rescue the female passenger, Sally. It's revealed that the dead passenger is the governor and Presidential hopeful, and that Sally was clearly not his wife. Jack is involved in a tale of intrigue and suspense as he goes back to his recording of the accident time and time again, to discover any clues as to what really went down that fateful night. Thrown in a serial killer subplot and this becomes top-notch dePalma.

If the premise sounds familiar, it's because the same basic plot has been done before twice in cinema: first with a photographer as the protagonist in Michelangelo Antonioni's BLOW-UP in 1966 and then a surveillance expert in Francis Ford Coppola's THE CONVERSATION in 1974. And Brian de Palma certainly loves to wear his cinematic influences on his sleeve. See: DRESSED TO KILL/PSYCHO and BODY DOUBLE/VERTIGO.  That said, despite the familiar plot, his take on the story may be my personal favorite.

The movie is incredibly well-written, with a conspiracy angle running through out the plot of the film. As Jack's investigation begins to unravel the mystery, you have John Lithgow's character going on a string of random killings in order to manipulate the media into thinking a serial killer is on the loose. That way when he eventually kills Sally in the same gruesome manner, no one will connect her to the larger conspiracy to kill the governor. This is one of Lithgow's earlier film roles and he delivers as the cool and menacing Burke.

Not to be outdone, this may be John Travolta's finest performance ever. Apparently, I'm in good
company as Quentin Tarantino thinks so as well, which prompted him to cast him in PULP FICTION that performance. (FICTION, coincidentally, my other favorite performance).  Travolta had mostly played heroes or romantic leads in his career. In this film, he really gets to demonstrate his chops as this sleazy sound effects editor involved a exceedingly seedy mystery. The climax of the film (SPOILERS) involves Sally, who has been wired for sound to catch Burke on tap, being tortured and killed while Travolta helplessly listens in. It's a dark ending to kill off the romantic lead, and even darker that Jack uses the legitimate scream as a sound effect in his shlocky horror B-movie. "It's a good scream..."

The fact that Travolta wasn't nominated for an Oscar for this performance is a crime. But what's a real tragedy is that the sound design for this film wasn't recognized at all. That's insane. Never have I heard, perhaps except THE CONVERSATION, where sound effects and recording played such a crucial role in the production and have been so flawlessly executed.

The entire film is a meditation on filmmaking and how sound and images can be manipulated to create a story. There's a brilliant scene of Jack using still photographs and matching them to his edited sound recording to create a "movie" that he believes will shed light on the mystery.

Guilt is also a theme running throughout the film, as we find out that Jack used to work with the police in wiring informants for undercover operations, until one night it all went wrong and one of his informants was killed on the job. Sally, who was hired as a way to stir up controversy against the governor, also has a guilty conscience and the unlikely pair is motivated to absolve their sins by solving the mystery.  The political thriller aspect also smells a little of Nixon-era paranoia as well, with powerful men manipulating the news and media to attain their sinister goals. It's perhaps a sick joke that the climax of the film takes place on the backdrop of a massive fireworks celebration in the city where America was "born", Philadelphia.

While receiving positive reviews from critics, word got out of the films pitch black bleak ending, which ultimately hurt the box office.  Thankfully, with new restorations like the Criterion Collection blu-ray, this film will get rediscovered in the years to come.

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