Blow Out Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 1 release of Brian De Palma’s marvellous Blow Out. Not a bad disc by MGM standards but don’t expect anything exciting in the way of extras.

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 and demonstrates just why De Palma is the most underrated of all great directors.

As if to answer his critics, De Palma opens 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 and generally behaving in the moronic way so familiar from that most abused sub-genre. The subjective camerawork 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 cold and cruel but 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. If we miss the messy brilliance of Dressed To Kill, a film which explodes all over the place and collapses in such an extraordinary manner that it overwhelms the viewer, it’s not so much a disappointment as a realisation that an artist has to go where he is led by his own vision – you might as well say that “Anna Karenina” is a disappointment after “War And Peace” ; how’s that for an impudent comparison ?

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 Golden Age of American Filmmaking (broadly speaking, 1967-81) and it wears its cynicism with pride. 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 fallen virtually out of sight, 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. Of course, it helps that Nancy Allen arouses a severely patriarchal protective instinct in this viewer – you might well feel differently. The rest of the cast are fine, although John Lithgow’s manically overplayed right-wing killer will either delight or infuriate. I find the character entirely unmenacing but compensatingly hilarious, especially the way he talks pure Watergate-speak – “I always stayed within an acceptable margin of error,” he assures his superiors after killing yet another innocent citizen.

I could rhapsodise for many paragraphs about Brian De Palma’s brilliance in this review, but I will resist the temptation. Suffice to say that every single shot in this film is perfect. Sometimes, the visual style is so fluent and electric that the viewer seems to be in the frame themselves – the marvellous moment with the owl at the edge of the screen demonstrates what I mean. His usual tricks – split screen, circular panning around a character, lengthy tracking shots – are used here but they are packed with an emotional truth that is relatively new for De Palma. The finest series of shots in the film are towards the end and can’t be explained without a major spoiler, but it’s enough to say that the transition from the rapid movement around Travolta to the crane shot in the snow is one of my three favourite single moments in cinema history. It says everything about what the character is going through and is, to my mind, unbearably moving. As for the ending, well some people have called it “flip” or “glib” – it’s neither, it is in fact a horribly ironic touch that offers neither redemption nor closure. That’s a major breakthrough for De Palma in itself, ending on a moment of powerful emotion rather than an audience pleasing trick. Essentially, this is as near to a love story as De Palma has ever come (bar the rather atypicalCarlito’s Way)and he realises that a single sincere emotion is worth a thousand visual tricks.

I don’t want to give the impression that I think De Palma is some kind of auteur. He has a very strong controlling vision but he has always been a director who relies on a group of collaborators to produce the final 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 (erm..)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 all very well to say that this film rips off Blow-Up – it doesn’t really, since Antonioni’s film is far more of a modish mood-piece than a thriller – but as in his other films, 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 great director. It’s also why he will be forever underrated by people who can’t see beyond superficial resemblances to the work of other, usually more respectable, directors. In this case, more than usual, it really is their loss. Blow Out is as good as American cinema gets. A must-see.

The Disc

It was disappointing to see that, while both Carrie and Dressed To Kill were receiving the special edition treatment, Blow Out was a bog standard MGM cheap effort. Luckily, the transfer is pretty good which begins to make up for the paucity of extras. Still something of a missed opportunity though !

There is something to be said for the notion that Blow Out needs to be seen in the cinema if at all possible. I saw it last at the NFT in 1995, when it was presented by Quentin Tarantino in a season of his favourite films, and I found the experience overwhelming. On TV it does inevitably lose something. However, this DVD has one major advantage over every other video presentation I’ve seen – it is presented in the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The film receives an anamorphic transfer that looks very nice indeed. There is a small amount of grain lying around and one or two scenes have some artifacting, but the general standard is high. There is a certain softness to the film, mostly intentional, and you might think that a little more detail would be an improvement, but the quality of the colours is superb and the contrast level is fine. Lovely, deep blacks too. A simple comparison to my VHS copy is enough to show that MGM have made a better job of this transfer than I had expected. There is a 4:3 pan/scan version included on the flip side of the disc which is useful only as an explanation of why panning and scanning is a crime against cinema.

The sound quality is not so pleasing. A film in which the sound plays a vital part requires a particularly good soundtrack – as Paramount demonstrated last year with The Conversation – and this 2.0 Surround transfer doesn’t quite cut it. It’s not bad, with ample use of the front channels and a nice enveloping feel to the music score, but it’s also a little flat and unexciting in places. This is true to the original presentation to some extent, which was – as you would expect from 1981 – basic Dolby Stereo, but a new 5.1 remix might have been appropriate. I would also have liked a music-only track.

The only extra, apart from a nicely animated main menu, is the splendidly over-the-top theatrical trailer. There are a slightly stingy 16 chapter stops.

A wonderful film, underrated at the time, is presented on an extras-lite but otherwise satisfactory disc. It’s by far the best video presentation of Blow Out I have yet seen and it seems unlikely that a more worthy special edition is likely to appear in the near future.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Nov 29, 2001

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