Brian De Palma’s ‘Blow Out’ sometimes makes us roll our eyes and sometimes holds us spellbound
Having received good feedback from the winner of April’s giveaway – the prize was Criterion’s rerelease of “Blow Out” – I realized it was high time to run the review. 😉
Brian De Palma/1981/ Filmways Pictures/107 min.
By Michael Wilmington
“Blow Out,” Brian De Palma’s 1981 neo noir about a movie sound man (played by John Travolta), who stumbles into a political conspiracy and a string of murders, is a movie for connoisseurs of trash and movie art. One of this movie’s strongest critical admirers (and one of De Palma’s) was Pauline Kael, and one of Kael’s most famous critical essays is called “Trash, Art and the Movies.” We get all three of them here, in a film that sometimes makes us roll our eyes and sometimes holds us spellbound.
“Blow Out” probably took its title partly from Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blowup,” which is about a swinging ’60s London photographer who stumbles on what may be murder. And it centers around one of Travolta’s sexiest performances, as Jack Terry the lone-wolf Philadelphia sound-effects man, who is working on a sleazy slasher horror movie.
The director is dissatisfied with the scream Jack has supplied for one of the victims. The movie within the movie is a terrible, inept picture, which De Palma stages as a send-up of “Halloween” and other teen slasher pics. But Jack is a pro. He takes his equipment out that night to get more ambient night-sound on a suburban bridge.
That bridge is an unusually well-populated one, considering the lateness of the hour. There are crickets and an owl, who stares at us disturbingly, and there’s another filmmaker named Manny Karp (Dennis Franz), who’s got his camera set up somewhere near Jack (but whom Jack doesn’t know and doesn’t see), and finally there’s a speeding car, carrying, amazingly, the current front-running candidate for president of the United States, Governor McRyan, (John Hoffmeister) together with a hot blonde named Sally (Nancy Allen).
Jack hears a couple of bangs (and catches them on his recorder) and the governor’s car plunges through a fence and into the river where it quickly sinks. Jack dives in and is able to rescue Sally, but not the possible next president.
Soon we’re at the hospital, where Sally is groggily coming to. The police, reporters and some political people, visions of Chappaquiddick perhaps dancing in their heads, seem to want Jack and Nancy to just clam up and go away. He won’t. She wants to, at first, but decides she likes Jack.
Then Manny and his Zapruderish film turns up, and ex-Philadelphian De Palma turns the city into a house of horrors more violent than anything in ex-Philadephian David Lynch’s neighborhood, craning and swooping and whirling his camera all around a world gone seemingly mad. There’s a deadly plot of some kind afoot, and its bloodiest agent is a phony telephone company worker named Burke (played with a truly evil stare and icily smug expression by John Lithgow), a cold-blooded killer who seems willing to depopulate half the town to keep all the guilty secrets safe.
If that sounds like a pretty absurd plot, it often plays pretty silly too, though just as often it’s imaginatively over-the-top and hellishly exciting. I‘ve always thought De Palma should avoid solo-writing jobs on his own movie scripts. And “Blow Out” as well as “Raising Cain” and “Femme Fatale” (and 1968’s “Murder a la Mod,” which is included in this Criterion package) are good demonstrations why. “Blow Out” is never boring. But a lot of the time it doesn’t make any bloody sense.
So why did Kael call it a great movie? Mostly, maybe, because she very much liked De Palma’s work, because this movie is made with such great feverish style, and also maybe because she had a crush of sorts on Travolta, as she had on Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Warren Beatty.
The style is what we remember about “Blow Out” – not the ideas, which are mostly shallow or obvious, or the story, which is both predictable and illogical, or the characters who are mostly overdrawn and somewhat stereotypical (or archetypal, if you prefer), or the movie itself, which is basically a set of ingeniously orchestrated suspense set-pieces, strung together in clever, artful ways that defy plausibility with an almost cheerful impudence.
Here’s an example of that high-style: When Jack goes back to the studio work room, because one of his tapes has been erased, De Palma keeps his camera spinning around in circles while Jack discoverers his other tapes have been erased too – and then stops at the precise moment, when an office worker comes in to tell him he’s had a call.
There’s really no justification really for twirling the camera, or for fragmenting and expanding time so implausibly in the last chase scene, or for bathing Manny Karp’s apartment, floor to ceiling in such blazing red light, or for a lot of the things De Palma does in his trademark set-pieces. (They’re not Hitchcockian; they’re De Palmian.) Except, of course, that they’re a lot of fun to watch, and De Palma (like Dario Argento or Mario Bava in their cult Italian horror movies) does them with such visual invention and luscious style that they become both horrific and a hoot.
I don’t think Blow Out is a great movie. I vastly prefer De Palma when he has a good scriptwriter working with him like Oliver Stone (“Scarface”), David Mamet (“The Untouchables”) or David Rabe (“Casualties of War”). But it’s definitely an exciting, entertaining, engrossing and sometimes ravishingly romantic show.
Bonus Movie: “Murder a la Mod” (Brian De Palma, 1968). De Palma’s earliest movie was this artsy little black and white thriller about moviemaking and murder. Set in Manhattan, it has a breezy look but a macabre sense of humor. (Killers and corpses pop in and out of trunks, and there’s a chase in a cemetery.) I’d say it’s De Palma’s worst movie, but it is a rarity – and you can probably see worse every week at the multiplexes.
Extras: Video interview with De Palma by Noah Baumbach; interviews with Nancy Allen and Blow Out’s movie-within-a-movie Steadicam cameraman Garrett Brown; on-set photos by Louis Goldman; “Blow Out” trailer; booklet with essay by Michael Sragow, frame-by-frame record of the movie’s blow out sequence; and Pauline Kael’s original New Yorker review.
You can read more of Michael Wilmington’s reviews at Movie City News.
Author photo by Victor Skrebneski; copyright Victor Skrebneski