Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Brian De Palma Challenges Our Perception in “Blow Out”

Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound man, working post-production on a low-budget slasher film called Coed Frenzy. The director, unhappy with a victim’s scream, wants an entirely new library of sounds. That night, Jack, armed with a shotgun mic and tape recorder, is outside recording when he hears squealing tires and watches a car crash into a creek. He jumps into the water and, once seeing that the driver is dead, pulls a female passenger to safety. After Jack is interrogated by a detective at a local hospital, he learns that the driver was the governor, who had presidential aspirations. More significantly, Jack is told to forget that the lady, Sally (Nancy Allen), was even in the car.

Though he is told that the car had a blow out, Jack reviews his recording and hears a distinctive bang which he believes is a gunshot. Meanwhile, a sleazy photographer, Manny Karp (Dennis Franz), having captured the accident wit
h a movie camera, is peddling his film to the tabloids. Jack pieces together stills from a magazine and creates a movie with his recorded sound, now convinced that the accident was an assassination. He stops Sally from leaving town, but he gets no help from the police, who write him off as a “conspiracy nut.” The plot only thickens when a mysterious man (John Lithgow) seems intent on a cover-up, destroying evidence and targeting Sally for murder.

Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) is a stunning and memorable thriller. His films are always visually rich and intricate. They are typically about perspective, but in this film, he questions not only what a person sees but also what is heard (at one point, Jack is mocked for being an “ear witness”). Jack’s amateur investigation is initiated by his audio recording, and his conclusion that an unusual sound is from a gun is mere speculation. When he’s able to view the film, what he sees is not a revelation but simply confirmation of what he’s already suspected. The notion of sound truly takes a front seat in the film, and it helps an audience relate to a character working in an uncommon field.

That is not to say that De Palma
’s camera isn’t telling the story. Many of his films have a cynical edge, a quiet criticism underlining the movie. In Blow Out, there are constant visual reminders of an upcoming Liberty Day celebration. This is functional for the plot, but also works against the political conspiracy throughout. It seems highly critical of politics or, more specifically, politicians themselves. Those who seek to be elected into office may speak of nationalism or promise to fight in favor of the country and/or state. Blow Out separates politics from an ideal such as patriotism. In this case, the road to an elected position has not a thing to do with a national belief and everything to do with whitewashing, secrecy and murder.

In Blow Out, as well as other De Palma
films, what characters perceive is not necessarily the truth, and sometimes the two are contradictions. The film begins with a person’s point-of-view, but this already is an illusion, as it is footage from a movie in progress. Similarly, TV reporters are usually reporting what Jack (and the audience) knows isn’t true. The added political element of Blow Out furthers this notion by supplementing the idea that perception can be altered to manufacture a truth. When Jack challenges the request to disregard Sally’s presence at the scene, he says, “That is the truth, isn’t it?” The response he is given is an assertion of the film’s theme: “What difference does that make to you?” Jack spends so much of the film trying to obtain the truth, but the truth is ever-changing, an unstable concept that makes achieving it an impossibility.

Travolta and Allen, who had both starred in a previous De Palma film, Carrie (1976), are wonderful together. Travolta’s acting chops had almost been sidelined for music-laden gems such as Saturday Night Fever (1977), Grease (1978) and Urban Cowboy (1980), and Blow Out was a good opportunity to show his abilities. His performance is superbly understated, and though Jack is delving further into a conspiratorial plot, he remains believable and easily garners audience support. Allen, who was the director’s wife at the time and had a starring role in his previous film, Dressed to Kill (1980), plays Sally with a childlike vulnerability. It’s an interesting opposition to her character’s profession, as well as to her rugged, street-smart characters from the earlier De Palma movies. Though both actors are outstanding, the film’s highlight, in terms of acting, is Lithgow. He’s both fascinating and loathsome, but more than anything, he’s utterly terrifying. It’s a performance that reverberates for days.

Travolta and Allen are not the only cast members appearing in other De Palm
a films. Franz had been in The Fury (1978) and Dressed to Kill and would star in Body Double (1984). Lithgow had made an appearance in Obsession (1976) and would provide an impressive performance (playing multiple characters) in 1992’s Raising Cain. Additionally, composer Pino Donaggio, editor Paul Hirsch and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond had all previously worked with De Palma and would work with him again.

Blow Out was a critical champion but a disappointment at the box office. This is undoubtedly due to the ending, which is depressingly ironic and may not be to everyone’s taste. The film, however, is one of De Palma’s greatest efforts. It’s an examination of the senses, questioning what people see and hear. Such is the cinema of Brian De Palma: one cannot trust anything. The only thing that is absolutely certain is that De Palma is a director of high caliber and unparalleled skill.


  1. Sark, this is a fascinating review of a film largely forgotten in the De Palma filmography. I think BLOW OUT is almost a companion piece to BODY DOUBLE, both of which use cinema as a backdrop for challenging our perceptions of reality. In BODY DOUBLE, what the protagonist sees turns out to be different from what he perceives. In BLOW OUT, as you noted, it's what Travolta's character hears that comes into question. Similar themes are explored in BLOW UP (not a favorite) and THE CONVERSATION (which is always compelling)--both of which also have downbeat endings (hey, at least BODY DOUBLE is an ultimately upbeat film in this mini-genre). I had forgotten how many performers were "De Palma regulars." I think De Palma provided Lithgow with some of his most memorable roles. Thanks, Sark, for an in-depth, absorbing analysis of an under-appreciated film.

  2. Sark, I really enjoyed reading your review to one of my favorite John Travolta, films. What he does at the end of the film, does make you think about what is most important to him.

    John Lithgow, also gives an awesome performance as the ruthless killer.

  3. Excellent review of a movie that I can't believe was not accepted well and still isn't really famous. DePalma is one of my favorite directors -- Body Double, Obsession, Carrie, The Fury -- so many dark and wonderful films. Like Rick, I had not put together the fact that the main actors were DePalma regulars. Travolta was dynamic, Allen was heartbreaking and Lithgow...wow. It is so disconcerting to see such an actor who is usually so likable with a sweet face and nature, play this monster!

    Of all DePalma's movies, this one is the hardest to watch again because it upset me so much. (But, I will -- I'm a masochist at heart.) The very last minute of the movie is one of the best endings on film Only a really great filmmaker can cause that kind of reaction to a great movie. Fantastic choice, Sark.

  4. This was a perceptive review of an underrated film. I do not normally care for Travolta, but he is quite good here. I think this is probably DePalma's best film.

  5. A powerful film, definitely one of DePalma’ best works. The film was inspired by the Ted Kennedy/Mark Jo Kopechne Chappaquiddick incident which derailed Kennedy’s political aspirations for a few years. It also was criticized at the time for it similarity to Blow-Up and The Conversation. Still, the film stands on its own…and the best news is Criterion is giving it a well deserved release in late April!

  6. Sark, great review. This film is not a favorite of mine, but I do enjoy watching how DePalma constructs his film. You are so right about Lithgow being utterly terrifying. That bathroom scene where he uses a garrot as a murder weapon has made me afraid of public bathrooms for close to 30 years! I'm always looking side to side and up!

  7. Sark, it has been years since I have seen "Blow Out." I remember thinking it was quite provocative, especially Lithgow's character. Today it would be very hard for me to see this. But you have written an outstanding review and given an enthusiastic and well-deserved tribute to De Palma. Well done!