Jack Terry always seems on edge, about to either fall into an inert heap or ignite everything around him. His perpetually tired visage may well be the summation of countless hours in a film lab, splicing sounds of footsteps, wind through the trees, croaking frogs, hooting owls. Jack is a sound editor, his talents squandered on Grade Z slashers, the sort that used to play on double bills in grindhouses and drive-ins. His work is particular and often tedious. Wearying. While collecting sounds on a bridge one night, he records something curious. A gunshot? A blown out tire? Yes. A car careens off the road into the drink.
Jack finds himself diving in and saving the passenger, a young woman. The driver is dead. The police and some shifty politicians will interrogate Jack at the hospital. It seems that the driver was a potential Presidential candidate. When the young woman comes to, Jack learns she is a lady of the evening, sweet in spirit and a bit soft in the head. She was part of something, something very sinister. She was certainly in the wrong place at the wrong time, but did she have a hand in the plot?
Director Brian DePalma's 1981 thriller BLOW OUT begins with that scenario, well, actually it begins with a scene from CO-ED FRENZY, one of Jack's unfortunate film assignments. As he watches it, he'll find yet again that the currently looped scream from a victim (caught by a serial killer in the shower, no less) is laughably awful, not the least bit convincing or bloodcurdling. The director demands Jack scout for new background sound effects, while he interviews a parade of "actresses" who audition their own laughably bad screams. Then comes the "blow out".
De Palma allows us to spend time with Jack (John Travolta) as he meticulously pieces together oxided audio tape to discover what exactly happened that night at the park. It is a fascinating process, and these scenes reminded me of similiar ones with Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) in 1974's THE CONVERSATION. Both films reward our patience and intelligence as we observe an artist/technician at work. Both Harry and Jack are experts at their crafts, little dreaming they would also be required to become detectives and svengalis. Neither succeeds very well with the latter.
BLOW OUT is one of De Palma's very best works. His screenplay takes a bid from not only THE CONVERSATION, but also many of the political paranoia pics of the 70s (PARALLAX VIEW et al). 1981 audiences were still freshly aware of Nixon's famous implosion, still witnessing assassination attempts (Reagan, Sadat). BLOW OUT furthers its plotline with the introduction of a guy named Manny Karp (Dennis Franz, doing his well oiled sleazy bit), who happened to also be at the park that night, taking pictures. Like Zapruder two decades before, his pictures are sold to the media and history is made. Jack will compile the photos and create a short film to match his painstakingly assembled soundtrack. It's all there, but what will the public learn? The truth? Did the Warren Commission come clean?
Topicality is but one of this film's strengths. De Palma is a true stylist, often sacrificing narrative logic for Panavision finesse and cinematic trickery (slow motion, wild dollies, split screens, close-ups, depth of field). Many of his films feature at least one grandiose extended set piece (the staircase in THE UNTOUCHABLES, the subway chase in CARLITO'S WAY, the prom massacre in CARRIE). Here, Travolta pilots his Jeep through Philadelphia like a madman, racing to save Sally from an assassin (John Lithgow, icily excellent). The sequence is edited by Paul Hirsch with razor precision, allowing for both the expected adrenaline and enough time for City of Brotherly Love appreciation in equal measure. As before, just don't think about it too hard.
Travolta and Allen are entirely believable in their roles. Neither is spotless in character yet both are jerked out of their respective malaises as the bleak reality begins to illuminate like an exposed photograph, or a clearly heard recording. Their chemistry is spot on throughout. When we reach the conclusion of BLOW OUT, a certain dark logic has been satisfied, but it is just so heartbreaking. This movie may have its cerebral elements, but it (like most De Palmas) works most effectively on an emotional level.
Viewers familiar with 1966's BLOWUP will see many parallels with the basic plot here. The shades of Hitchock are also seen in BLOW OUT (a MacGuffin or two is thrown in the mix), but again De Palma creates his own trademarks, in my opinion never plagiarizing but rather tipping his hat in perhaps obvious ways. Voyeurism is a theme of all De Palma's works, as it had been in some of Hitch's (most obviously REAR WINDOW). This time out, we're spared some of De Palma's seamier trademarks (sexual and psychosexual) in favor of a more straight laced mystery. While DRESSED TO KILL and BODY DOUBLE are necessarily torrid, such elements would've made BLOW OUT unnecessarily exploitive.
Criterion recently released BLOW OUT on DVD and Blu-Ray with newly restored prints and a second disc of choice extras. Director/writer Noah Baumbach spends an (mostly) interesting hour interviewing De Palma. Neither are particularly animated, but De Palma is a little too laid back to sustain interest unless you're already a buff. His anecdotes are meaty for the faithful, but maybe a Red Bull ahead of time might've been a good idea. In another segment, cameraman Garrett Brown discusses his unique invention, the Steadicam (an ingeniously crafted mounting and armature system for the camera which allows smooth tracking even in difficult spaces), used so fluidly through BLOW OUT (and THE SHINING and others previously). Nancy Allen contributes her recollections in a fairly new interview and Louis Goldman's still photos from the set of the film are also included in this package. A book containing Paulene Kael's glowing 1981 review (the sourpuss critic was nonetheless a longtime champion of the director), a facsimilie of the magazine article featuring Karp's crash photos, and a gallery of the B-movie posters, all real films, seen on the walls in Jack's office is included.
De Palma's 1967 film MURDER à la MOD is also included on Disc Two. Review to come. Will certainly be telling to see if the director would inspire himself for BLOW OUT. He would be in good company.