Blow Out Review
Brian De Palma's Blow Out is a visceral thriller which has a uniquely satisfying kick. If Dressed To Kill left us in no doubt as to his technical skill, this follow-up adds a new dimension in the form of surprisingly genuine human emotion. The marriage of the two is a potent combination which leaves most American thrillers of the eighties looking inadequate.
Frequently accused of brutal misogyny, mistakenly in my view, De Palma decides to goad his critics by opening the film with a deliciously juvenile slasher sequence. A heavy breathing killer is on the loose in a co-ed dormitory, watching kids having sex, dancing in their underwear, masturbating and generally behaving in the moronic way so familiar from that most abused sub-genre. The subjective camerawork – a superbly achieved three minute take using a Steadicam operated by Garrett Brown - takes us into the shower, leering at a well-endowed blonde soaping herself up, only to stop before the knife plunges into her. The problem is her totally unconvincing scream of horror. The director of the film demands than soundman Jack (Travolta) finds a better scream to add to the soundtrack - and essentially that's what the film is about, Jack finding a better scream. In the process, Jack uncovers a political conspiracy and falls in love, but by the end, he has indeed discovered a better scream. The ruthless symmetry of the plot is exquisite and it also allows De Palma to put his technical skill into a context where it no longer seems to divide the film into a series of set-pieces and is, in that sense, a major breakthrough.
One night, while recording ambient sounds for the film, Jack witnesses a car plunging off the road and into a river after one of the tyres apparently suffers a blow-out. He dives into the water and rescues the passenger but is unable to save the driver. The passenger, Sally (Allen), is the mistress of the driver, Governor McRyan, presidential candidate and influential politician who is now at the bottom of the river in his car. Having recorded the accident, Jack listens to the tape and becomes convinced that the bang he hears before the car plummets off the road is not a blow-out but a gunshot - and, hence, he decides that he has witnessed a political assassination. His feeling of unease grows when he is asked by influential men to forget that he saw anything or that Sally was in the car. Although agreeing to keep a low profile, Jack is determined to investigate on his own behalf and he begins to build up his own version of what happened on the night of the "accident".
Like so many well-meaning but basically inadequate heroes before him - J.J.Gittes, Harry Caul, Harry Moseby - Jack is unprepared for the depth of the conspiracy he uncovers and it's this level of inadequacy for the task at hand that makes him such an interesting character. John Travolta's performance was a revelation back in 1981 and it still looks alarmingly fresh and vital. Jack, like Harry Caul, is trying to find redemption after an accident caused by his own skill with sound equipment, but unlike Harry he is more than happy to accept help from other people and share his burdens. That this doesn't seem to make any difference in the end is part of the bleak message with which the film leaves us. Blow Out is one of the last films of the second golden age of American filmmaking (broadly speaking, 1967-81) and it wears its cynicism about the establishment as a badge of honour. Travolta refuses to make Jack cute or even all that sympathetic; he's just an ordinary guy trying to do his job in difficult circumstances. He's as unprepared to be a hero as he is to be chased by the bad guys. In addition, he's a skilled technician with an obsession borne of perfectionism - the scene where he recreates the car wreck using sounds and photos is one of the most exciting in the film, just as the blowing-up of the photograph was the high point of Antonioni's superficially similar Blow Up. Jack uses his technical brilliance against the bad guys because it's the only way he knows how to combat them but he is all too aware that even an expert can make mistakes and that such mistakes can have terrible consequences.
Nancy Allen, so often miscast since and now retired from movies, is the perfect partner for Travolta. Her acting has an unpredictable and edgy quality which makes Sally more than just the usual ditzy piece of skirt that she could so easily have become. Virtually everything Sally does is weirdly off-centre - she spends much of the first half hour of the film in a sort of daze, but once this wears off she remains just as distracted even when assisting Jack with his enquiries. This can come across as annoying, and it may do to some viewers of this film, but I think Allen pulls it off splendidly, ensuring that the final thirty minutes is genuinely involving and nail-biting stuff. Vilmos Zsigmond’s camera is clearly in love with her and as it caresses her, she looks like a million dollars. A particular joy in the excellent supporting cast is John Lithgow whose demented right-wing killer is a constant delight, especially the way he speaks fluent Watergate - "I always stayed within an acceptable margin of error," he assures his superiors after killing yet another innocent citizen.
Cynical as the film about government and power, it’s not cynical about people and that’s the secret of its emotional depth. Jack and Sally’s relationship – hesitant and naïve as it is – seems touching because they don’t hide their own awkwardness and their hope for a bright future. In short, I think we like these people and we want them to have a happy ending. Thus engaging us, De Palma can get on with his customary visual brilliance in the firm knowledge that his favourite tricks - split screen, circular panning around a character, lengthy tracking shots - are placed firmly in the context of an emotionally engaging storyline. The finest series of shots in the film comes towards the end and the transition from the rapid spin around Travolta to the crane shot in the snow, which in lesser films would be merely a show-off moment, is here all about character and unbearably moving. As for the ending, it might seem "flip" or "glib" in other circumstances but it seems clear to me that it is in fact totally sincere. On one level, it completes the storyline – Jack fulfils the search for a better scream - but on the other, it’s about the emotional devastation wrought by trying to do the right thing in a bad world and it gives the lie to critics who think De Palma is incapable of being interested in people.
I don't want to give the impression that I think De Palma is an auteur. He certainly has a very strong controlling vision but he has always been a director who relies on a group of collaborators to produce his best work. It's impossible to imagine this film working as well as it does without Vilmos Zsigmond's lighting or Paul Hirsch's tight editing - we should also mention the immense contribution made by Michael Moyse, the sound editor. Best of all, Pino Donaggio provides one of his finest scores. De Palma has been lucky with his composers - his films have featured career highlights for John Williams, Ennio Morricone and even Giorgio Moroder - and this film inspires Donaggio to even greater heights than Dressed To Kill. The main theme, beginning with strings and then fading to a poignant piano solo, is particularly gorgeous. But, it's not taking away anything from these artists to say that in Blow Out De Palma has reached a point where he is making films which are so personal and visionary that they transcend genre. It's easy to say that this film rips off Blow-Up - it doesn't really and in any case, Antonioni's film is far more of a modish mood-piece than a thriller - but as elsewhere, De Palma takes elements of other films and then produces something entirely original in form if not always in content. That's why he's a fascinating director and Blow Out is one of his best works. It’s funny – particularly in its affectionate depiction of low-budget filmmaking – and gripping and ultimately, and crucially, all about the mystery which makes all others seem banal; that of the human heart.
Arrow have become one of the very best UK companies for Blu-Ray releases and Blow Out is a thoroughly satisfying disc.
The movie looks beautiful in this edition thanks to a director-approved digital transfer from the original camera negative. It's a visually rich film, full of striking lighting contrasts and sometimes deliberately soft. This Blu-Ray disc rises to the challenge splendidly. It looks absolutely pristine and possesses a healthy film-like appearance which has an appropriate level of grain but no obtrusive noise. The vivid, rich primary colours are perhaps the best thing here but the level of detail is incredibly high throughout. Particularly worthy of praise are the night-time exteriors which have plenty of depth and clarity. Having seen the film projected on 35MM several times, I think Blow-Out looks better here than it has done before in the UK. The transfer is the same one on the region-locked Criterion edition and I can see no obvious differences between the two images.
Sound is an essential part of the film and the LPCM 2.0 stereo track does honour to it. The use of the two channels for the sound effects is imaginative and striking, particularly during the scene where Travolta remembers being on the bridge and listens to his recording. Pino Donaggio's lush, romantic score sounds beautiful and blends seamlessly with the dialogue. Optional English subtitles are provided for the main feature.
In terms of supplements, the Blu-Ray replicates the extras from the French Carlotta release which are largely different from those on the Criterion. All are presented in standard definition.
Black and White in Colour is a meaty 27 minute piece with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. He reflects on how the film only gained an audience after it had been around some time and the satisfaction gained by a DP in working with a strongly visual director. Plenty of insights here into the DP's craft including the way the colours were worked out with the production designer, the technique of flashing a negative and De Palma's use of the split-diopter. I've heard some complaints that Zsigmond's accented English is a little hard to decipher but it's seems clear enough to me and certainly a damn sight better than my non-existent Hungarian.
Nancy Allen features in Rag Doll Memories and proves a very engaging presence. She talks about how much she loved working alongside John Travolta, with whom she acted in Carrie, and how their chemistry worked so well. Also revealed is the extensive rehearsal process which developed Sally's "rag doll' personality - and that the original name for the character was Kate which seemed wrong. Allen was, of course, married to De Palma at the time and has interesting insights into his working methods on this film and also on Dressed to Kill where she plays a very contrasting character. Interestingly, she isn't too keen on the ending of Blow Out.
Return to Philadelphia sees producer George Litto discussing the genesis of the film and his memories of its production. He's engaging and witty, very complimentary about the movies he discusses but also making some interesting observations about the things he didn't entirely agree with - the ending of Blow Out wasn't entirely to his taste.
Finally, and best of all, Multitracking Blow Out is a thirty minute interview with Pino Donaggio which is conducted in Italian. Arrow have provided the subtitles which the Carlotta disc lacked. It touches in some detail on the film but also ranges across Donaggio's film composing career - which kicked off with Don't Look Now - and deals with both his classical origins and his period as a pop star which peaked with the multi-million selling "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me". His collaboration with De Palma began in 1976 with Carrie, which Donaggio got because Bernard Herrmann suddenly died, and has continued sporadically up until his most recent film Passion. What's fascinating here is Donaggio's detail regarding his working methods and small details such as how the music is always over the sound effects rather than vice-versa.
Finally, we get the theatrical trailer and a collection of candid on-set photographs by Louis Goldman. The only slight disappointment is the absence of the extra film which was on the Criterion disc - De Palma's early Murder a la Mod which is well worth catching up with.
Promised to purchasers are a booklet containing an essay by Michael Atkinson and a reversible cover but neither of these were available to review.
If you haven't seen Blow Out then you've missed a treat. It's sly, witty, exciting and finally very moving. Arrow's Blu-Ray is a package sure to delight both fans of the film and those who are new to it. Highly recommended.