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Days of De Palma (Part 4): Blow Out (1981)

After some delay (sorry about that!) we return to my Days of De Palma series, exploring the films of Brian De Palma!

Much has been written about the way in which Brian De Palma’s films feel heavily influenced by the work of Alfred Hitchcock.  Already in my De Palma viewing project, I have seen the ways in which this is so.  But Mr. De Palma’s 1981 film, Blow Out, isn’t so much a Hitchcock film as it is a more lurid, mainstream re-telling of Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificent 1974 film The Conversation.

In Blow Out, John Travolta (who had a very small role in Mr. De Palma’s film Carrie) plays Jack Terry, who works as a sound-guy on shlocky B-grade movies.  One evening, Jack is out on a bridge recording sound (they need better “wind” for their horror picture) when he witnesses a terrible car accident, in which a vehicle careens off the road and into the water.  Jack dives in and rescues a woman, Sally (Nancy Allen, in yet another De Palma film after Carrie and Dressed to Kill), but the driver perishes.  When said driver is revealed to be a popular Presidential candidate, his people urge Jack to forget he was ever there and never speak to anyone about the woman in the car, so as not to sully the now-dead politician’s reputation.  The story the press reports is that the candidate’s car suffered a fatal blow-out which caused it to crash off the road, but Jack’s sound-recording of the event leads him to suspect that he can hear a gunshot the instant before the blow-out — meaning the man was murdered.

The start of the film had me very worried.  The film begins with a long point-of-view shot of a stalker lurking outside some sort of women’s dormitories.  We’re given just the sort of cheap thrills and gratuitous nudity that has so bugged me in Mr. De Palma’s films so far.  Of course, this dorm is filled with women having sex, women frolicking in their underwear in full view of the windows, a woman lying on a couch masturbating, women showering, etc.  The whole thing is eventually revealed to be a movie within-the-movie — we’re actually watching the cheesy horror film that Jack and his boss are working on.  It’s supposed to be a joke, but the gag would be a lot funnier if this sort of gratuitous exploitation wasn’t EXACTLY the sort of stuff Mr. De Palma’s films have been jam-packed with, up to this point!

Luckily, things pick up from there.  Blow Out contains some of the most effectively tense sequences of any of Mr. De Palma’s films that I have seen so far.  The whole film is a powerful slow-build of tension and suspense, as poor Jack gradually realizes that he is falling deeper and deeper in over his head.

To me, one of the most notable aspects of Blow Out, and the thing I was most taken with, was the film’s focus on movies and the way that sound works in film.  The film takes a lot of time to show us the ins and outs of Jack’s job.  I loved the scene in which we see him and the director fretting, in their screening room, about the terrible scream given by their lead actress.  I also really dug the scenes of Mr. Travolta at work, cutting and filing film snippets to create his library of sound.  It’s a window into how films used to be created, before everything went digital, and I find those sequences to be endlessly fascinating.

Probably the best sequence in the film is the leisurely paced scene of Jack recording sound, right before the fatal crash.  As Jack slowly moves his microphone around him, he and we are allowed to bathe in the embrace of the sounds surrounding him.  With each new sound, we’re given a few moments to try to figure out what exactly we’re hearing, until Mr. De Palma’s camerawork playfully reveals the source of the noise.

As much as I enjoyed that scene, it’s equalled by the moment, later in the film, in which Jack reviews in his mind everything that went down that fateful night.  As Jack sits in a hotel room, he gently waves a pencil back and forth, mimicking his microphone, re-enacting every move he made that night and every sound that he heard.  The moment is a wonderful fusion of directing, editing, and the emotional performance of Mr. Travolta.  It’s a hell of a sequence.

The film also cleverly plays up Jack’s film background as he investigates the crash.  In one fun moment, we see him create a flip-book from still photos of the crash, in an effort to watch (rather than just listen to) the event unfold.  Then Jack takes things one step further by using the animation equipment in his company’s studio to create a moving visual record — a movie! — of the photos, which he can play along with his sound recordings in order to better understand exactly what happened.

Mr. Travolta, in an early starring role (though this was after Grease and Urban Cowboy) is dynamite in the lead as Jack.  Mr. Travolta’s performance draws the audience in, and as the cool cat becomes increasingly desperate and unhinged, it sucks the viewer right into the unfolding narrative of the story.  Ms. Allen is less successful, in my mind.  Though I thought she was very solid in Carrie and in Dressed to Kill, here she puts on a weird sort-of clueless persona.  I guess it’s an acting choice to portray Sally as a dim-bulb, but I found it to be off-putting and unconvincing.  Her Sally also seems to shift back and forth from depression into over-the-top upbeat happiness in a bizarre manner.  Again, maybe this was her way of portraying Sally as somewhat manic-depressive, but to me it just played like an actor not in control of her performance.  It was disappointing, though it was still fun to see her paired up once again with Travolta.  (The two played boyfriend-and-girlfriend in Carrie.) In Pauline Kael’s rather jaw-droppingly effusive review of the film, reprinted in the booklet included on the Criterion Collection’s Blow Out blu-ray, she writes that “Nancy Allen gives the film its soul.”  I don’t see it.

Dennis Franz, clearly as much a De Palma regular as Ms. Allen, pops up again, this time as the skeezy photographer Manny Karp.  He’s fun to watch, as is John Lithgow as the rigid, unhinged assassin Burke.  Mr. Lithgow is truly menacing and creepy.  It’s a great performance — I wish we got to see more of his character in the film.

There are some fun split-screen moments (such as the sequence, early in the film, in which we see Mr. Travolta at work on one side of the screen, while a TV report containing important info for the plot of the film plays on the other side), tracking shots, and more directorial flourishes to be had.  One shot that really stands out for me comes right at the end of the film.  Something tragic has just happened, and from a very low angle we look up at Mr. Travolta and the camera spins around, capturing Mr. Travolta’s frantic anguish transposed against the beauty of the fireworks exploding far overhead.  I also really loved the moment in which Jack realizes that all of his tapes have been erased.  The camera spins round and round Jack’s tiny office.  At first Jack is clearly in frame but then, as his desperation grows, we start to lose sight of him, just catching the occasional glimpse as the camera makes its whirls around the room.  The shot becomes a fascinating mirror of Jack’s inner state, and the cracking of the cool facade he has built up for himself.

Speaking of the film’s climax, I was quite surprised and impressed by how grim the ending was.  I’d expected a more conventional ending, and I was quite pleased that Mr. De Palma and his team went with such an unusual (though very appropriate, and right-for-the-story) choice.

For everything that I enjoyed about Blow Out, it still can’t hold a candle to The Conversation. (I’m actually a little surprised by Blow Out’s good reputation, since it seems to me that while the film is pretty great, it’s also quite plainly completely derivative of Mr. Coppola’s film.)  Blow Out is a simpler film than The Conversation. Mr. Travolta gives a terrific performance, but his Jack is a far more standard, easy-to-like hero than The Conversation’s Harry Caul.  And Blow Out is a much more propulsive, lurid narrative, filled with action and adventure, whereas The Conversation is far more leisurely paced and inward-looking.

But not being as good as one of the finest movies ever made doesn’t make Blow Out a failure.  Quite the contrary, I think this is the most through-and-through successful of Mr. De Palma’s films that I’ve seen so far, and the first one in this watching/re-watching project that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Coming next is the first film so far (though there will be a few more later) of Mr. De Palma’s that I’ve seen already: Scarface. My recollection is that I really loved Scarface the few times I’d seen it previously.  I’m eager to see it again and discover what I think now…

Days of De Palma: Part 1 — Carrie (1976), Part 2 — The Fury (1978), Part 3 — Dressed to Kill (1980).

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