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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents – Career Best: Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out” (1981)

On September 11th I celebrated the birthday of filmmaking auteur Brian De Palma’s birthday by sitting down to watch “Blow Out”, the directors best film and his most emotionally devastating. Written and directed by De Palma and starring hot up and coming movie star John Travolta and Nancy Allen. “Blow Out” is a tightly wound thriller at the height of his powers giving us a stylish American thriller knee-deep in paranoia. It is a neatly packed, thriller, a visual tour de force executed on a level far beyond average filmmaking, with some of the director’s most fully-realized characters. De Palma brings together the obsessions that had fueled his earlier films and even his later ones and puts them all on display for “Blow Out”, in a startlingly mature and thoughtful manner, that helped give up and coming star John Travolta an opportunity to shine in all his talent. In what is one of Travolta’s finest performances. De Palma beautifully incorporates multiple allusions to other films and historical events. Including Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blowup” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation”. De Palma also alludes to the elements of the Watergate scandal and the JFK assassination. De Palma’s visual images in “Blow Out” invite comparisons to the master himself Alfred Hitchcock with a brilliant ending that makes you wonder: “You can’t end a thriller like that. Can you?”. His ending is horrifying in a psychological sense that stays with you and hits you like a punch to the gut. The movie is a master class in how to craft the perfect shock ending. Sadly it underperformed at the box office, not even making back its $18 million budget despite it’s positive critical reviews. However, the public reputation of “Blow Out” has grown considerably in the years following its release. It has earned a natural audience with subsequent generations of cinephiles and a place in the prestigious Criterion Collection. It has cinematic power, is addictively engaging, intelligently conceived and very passionately brought to life. In the simplest terms it’s a masterpiece of filmmaking and an example of the transformative power of cinema, all nestled inside trademark De Palma themes. “Blow Out” is solid proof of one of our finest filmmakers utter brilliance. 

Few film directors are as polarizing as Brian De Palma. Hailed by many as an American visionary and the modern master of suspense, capable of gorgeously realized visual feats. The director’s films have a wild and ostentatious style. De Palma has camera shots that dip in and out of point of view perspectives and move along in extended tracking and steadicam sequences. 

You can’t deny that Brian De Palma has real flair and a visual sense. De Palma’s camera gracefully glides around sequences, so that you’re always aware of the geography of the moment and where the characters are in relation to the camera and of each other. He uses many visual styles including: the split diopter lens that allows both the foreground and background to be in focus, the employment of split-screen for a number of reasons (mostly to show the same event from two different locations or perspectives) and the use of slow motion as a way not just to amplify the visual importance of a moment but to express the moment’s emotionality. He assembles it all through deft editing that takes delight in throwing an audience off of its game. Even when De Palma has that rare occasion of directing a dud, his flair puts his craft well above any other filmmakers. 

De Palma sits in a unique group of his peers, which also includes Roman Polanski, Oliver Stone, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. De Palma and his style of filmmaking, including his use of excessive violence is a love it or leave it approach; that you’re either on board with or not. De Palma can be controversial but knows how to film and structure a thriller like the master himself Alfred Hitchcock. 

In fact he is often called out for his many references to Hitchcock’s movies. While he indeed cribs shots, scenarios, even entire premises from the Master of Suspense. When De Palma is at his best, he expands on Hitchcock’s darker subtexts. Brian De Palma is one of the great auteur filmmakers in cinema and there’s no denying the impact he’s had on movies.

He began his filmmaking career directing underground features shot on a shoestring budget, many of which starred a young Robert DeNiro. He came into his own with the Hitchcock-inspired thriller “Sisters” (1973), starring Margot Kidder as a pair of killer Siamese twins. Having Hitchcock serve as a muse to De Palma is most evident in both style and substance, in such films as: “Obsession” (1976), “Dressed to Kill” (1980), “Blow Out” (1980), “Body Double” (1984), “Raising Cain” (1992) and you can even consider “Snake Eyes” (1998). 

He enjoyed his first box office success with “Carrie” (1976), an adaptation of Stephen King’s chilling novel about a shy teenager (Sissy Spacek) with telekinesis. The film brought Oscar nominations to Spacek and Piper Laurie (as Carrie’s religiously fanatic mother) for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively.

Although several of his films have either competed for or won Academy Awards (including “The Untouchables,” which brought Sean Connery a Best Supporting Actor trophy in 1987). Believe it or not but De Palma has never personally been nominated for an Oscar (start the protest!). He has, however, competed at the Razzies (the Academy Awards for the worst of the year in film) a number of times for a few films. De Palma also helped launch the highly lucrative “Mission: Impossible” film franchise, directing the 1996 film that is currently filming it’s seventh film in the series. 

It’s easy to say that De Palma’s big Hollywood fare like “Scarface”, “Carlito’s Way” or “The Untouchables” can be classified as some of his best work (there’s no denying that). But really DePalma is at his truly best with his gritty thrillers and none is better than “Blow Out” from 1981. “Blow Out” is a tightly wound thriller written and directed by DePalma. He is at the height of his powers with “Blow Out”, his stylish American thriller knee-deep in paranoia. “Blow Out” is a neatly packed, thriller, a visual tour de force executed on a level far beyond average filmmaking, with some of the director’s most fully-realized characters. 

“Blow Out”, continues De Palma’s practice of making cross-references to other movies, other directors, actual historical events, and it is his best and most original work. The title and plot reminds us of “Blow-Up”, the 1966 film by Michelangelo Antonioni (available on Criterion Collection) in which a photographer saw (or thought he saw) a murder and went mad while obsessively analyzing his photographs of the “crime”.

In “Blow Out”, John Travolta coming fresh off his successful “Urban Cowboy”, plays the character who confronts those aforementioned questions. He’s a sound man for a sleazy Philadelphia B-horror movie studio, working on cheap, cynical exploitation films. Late one night, while recording ambient night sounds for a movie, he becomes a witness to an accident. A car has a blowout, swerves off a bridge and plunges into a river. Travolta plunges in after it, rescues a girl inside (Nancy Allen from “Carrie”)and later discovers that the car’s drowned driver was a potential presidential candidate. 

While reviewing his sound recording of the event, Travolta becomes convinced that he can hear a gunshot just before the blowout. Was the accident actually murder? The plot from here thickens beautifully and De Palma doesn’t have just a handful of ideas to spin into a feature film. He has an abundance. Including meeting a gallery of violent and sleazy characters, including Burke (played by John Lithgow). 

De Palma brings together the obsessions that had fueled his earlier films and even his later ones and puts them all on display for “Blow Out”, in a startlingly mature and thoughtful manner, that helped give up and coming star John Travolta an opportunity to shine in all his talent. And what talent it is. Not only does Travolta give what is probably his finest performance in a film Travolta himself called one of his top three favorites. 

Travolta further solidifies his star making performance as his character Jack digs deeper into the investigation. For him, it’s a matter of competence and of personal pride. Arguing with a cop about his tapes, Travolta denies that he’s just imagining things and stumbles across a series of photos of the fatal accident. In one of De Palma’s most brilliantly crafted sequences, we follow every step as Jack assembles a film by mixing his recordings and the found photos. The sequence helps “Blow Out” to be seen as a genius meta film about the process of filmmaking. As we watch Jack studiously examining the sound and trying to connect it to the photographs of the crime scene, he engages in a process of creating a narrative in a way that echoes the very production of films.

After completing “Dressed to Kill”, De Palma was considering several projects, including “Act of Vengeance” (later produced for HBO starring Charles Bronson and Ellen Burstyn), the Jennifer Beals starring vehicle “Flashdance” and a script of his own titled “Personal Effects”. The story outline for “Personal Effects” was similar to what would become “Blow Out”, but set in Canada.

De Palma scripted and filmed “Blow Out” in his home town of Philadelphia. The $9 million budget was high at the time for De Palma, and movie company Filmways had spent an additional $9 million to market the movie. De Palma had originally considered Al Pacino for the role of Jack Terry, but went to John Travolta,who himself lobbied De Palma to cast Nancy Allen for the role (as the three had previously worked together on the Stephen King adaptation “Carrie”); De Palma hesitated at first since he and Allen were married at the time and he didn’t want Allen to have a reputation for only working in her husband’s films, but ultimately agreed to cast her. 

In addition to Travolta and Allen, De Palma filled the film’s cast and crew with a number of his frequent collaborators: Dennis Franz (“Dressed to Kill”, “The Fury”, “Body Double”); John Lithgow (“Obsession”, “Raising Cain”); cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (“Obsession”); editor Paul Hirsch (“Hi, Mom!”, “Sisters”, “Phantom of the Paradise”, “Obsession”, “Carrie”, “The Fury”); and composer Pino Donaggio (“Carrie”, “Home Movies”, “Dressed to Kill”).

Seventy percent of the film was shot at night. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond said “That doesn’t mean I necessarily like that look but I think it was good for the picture. You see, I like a softer look, a more diffused look”. While editing the film two reels of footage from the Liberty Parade sequence were stolen and were never recovered. The scenes had to be reshot with insurance money at a cost of $750,000.

As with other De Palma films, “Blow Out” explores the power of guilt and revisits the theme of voyeurism, a recurring theme in much of his previous work. De Palma beautifully incorporates multiple allusions to other films and historical events. Jack’s obsessive reconstruction of his sound recording to uncover a possible murder as mentioned before recalls Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blowup” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation”. De Palma also alludes to the elements of the Watergate scandal, the JFK assassination and elements of the Chappaquiddick incident, although De Palma intentionally tried to downplay those similarities. 

De Palma’s visual images in “Blow Out” invite comparisons to the master himself Alfred Hitchcock. De Palma even invited the comparison when the posters for “Dressed to Kill” had described him as the “Master of the Macabre”. In “Blow Out” he plays to such Hitchcock hallmarks such as several grisly murders in unexpected surroundings, violence in public places, and a chase through Philadelphia on the anniversary of the ringing of the Liberty Bell. This last extended chase sequence reminds us of two Hitchcock strategies: His merging of patriotic images and espionage, as in “North by Northwest” and “Saboteur” and his desperate chases through uncaring crowds, reminders of “Foreign Correspondent” and “Strangers on a Train”. 

Or the opening homage to Hitchcock’s iconic shower scene in “Psycho”. When Jack is employed as the sound guy for a B-horror movie, he must find the recording of the perfect female scream as she gets murdered but this time it’s played for laughs. The laughs come at how none of the actresses in the scene are convincing, but De Palma brilliantly brings that moment back at the film’s gut punch ending and epilogue. 

That aforementioned brilliant ending makes you wonder: “You can’t end a thriller like that. Can you?”. His ending is horrifying in a psychological sense that stays with you and hits you right between the ears. “Blow Out” leaves you to ponder what’s just happened. Seeing Jack’s final actions could be described as utter callousness, or more likely, the work of a man driven out of his mind by recent events and punishing himself by listening to the same piercing sound, over and over. The movie is a master class in how to craft the perfect shock ending. 

Sadly “Blow Out” underperformed at the box office, not even making back its $18 million budget. Despite positive critical reviews, the film floundered at the box office, that is said to be due to terrible word of mouth about its bleak ending. “Blow Out” made $13 million, when Filmways had publicly claimed the film would easily make $60–80 million.

However, the public reputation of “Blow Out” has grown considerably in the years following its release. It has earned a natural audience with subsequent generations of cinephiles. In particular, director and writer Quentin Tarantino who has consistently praised the movie, listing it alongside “Rio Bravo” and “Taxi Driver” as one of his three favorite films. In homage, Tarantino used the music cue “Sally and Jack” from the score by composer Pino Donaggio in Tarantino’s own film “Death Proof”.  De Palma’s “Blow Out” is now easily and deservingly recognized as one of the neo-noir genre’s best, to even becoming a part of the prestigious Criterion Collection in the most definitive Blu Ray release to date. 

Had it been released just a few years earlier it most likely would have been more appreciated and seen by a larger audience. But really the filmmaking in “Blow Out” is beyond exquisite. From the opening prologue, a phony slasher movie sequence that is purposely over-the-top, to the title sequence that basically lays out the entire movie in a few minutes, to the staging of the actual blow out; this is De Palma’s working at an astonishing technical level. In a weird way, it’s subtler than most of De Palma’s thrillers but just as dazzling. 

De Palma creates an ambiance so nerve shattering, a ride so downright exciting that when we observe how the plot develops on the screen, we can’t help  but feel as a part of the conspiracy ourselves. This is a classic of the eighties, a thriller that stands among the very best conspiracy movies Hollywood has ever produced. It has cinematic power, is addictively engaging, intelligently conceived and very passionately brought to life.

It’s a masterpiece of filmmaking and the celebration of the transformative power of cinema, all nestled inside trademark De Palma themes of voyeurism, sexuality and political unease. Out of his impressive sixty year career this is his best film as well as his most emotionally devastating work. “Blow Out” is solid proof of De Palma’s utter brilliance. Patiently building the tension, relying on a truly wonderful script and a gut punch of an ending. 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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