Blow Out feels like that great stylist Brian De Palma getting the paranoid, anti-establishment ’70s out of his system before turning his attention to ’80s excess in Scarface. An analogue tech extrapolation of the themes explored in his beloved Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rear Window, it expands on the Hitch worship of Sisters and Dressed to Kill in exciting and alarming ways. Dripping in post-Watergate cynicism and anti-authoritarian distrust, it’s a labyrinthine conspiracy of politics, sex and violence that is either distressingly nihilistic or grimly humorous, depending on your disposition.
Jack Terry (a never-better John Travolta) is a sound effects whizz for a seedy B-movie film studio. One night while out recording the sounds of nocturnal Philadelphia, he happens to witness and record a car accident. The vehicle’s tyre explodes and its veers off a bridge into a creek. Jack dives in and rescues the passenger, a young woman called Sally (Nancy Allen). The driver is not so lucky, and the drowned man is later revealed to be a great white liberal hope of US politics, practically a shoo-in for the Democratic presidential nomination. Jack suspects that this was no accident and sets about using his sound expertise to prove the senator was murdered.
A loose reimagining of Michelangelo Antonioni‘s swinging ’60s thriller Blow-Up by way of Francis Ford Coppola‘s zeitgeisty The Conversation, Blow Out may be deeply pessimistic in tone, but De Palma’s playful trickery conversely makes it one of his most purely entertaining films. Starting with a grindhouse movie-within-a-movie drenched in slasher tropes and giallo theatrics allows him to indulge his sleazier tendencies. He knows his reputation, but there is a far more sophisticated film up his sleeve. Blow Out is a conspiracy thriller, but it’s about the myth of America, and how the artifice of movies have helped to bolster this. It’s about how sound and image can be manipulated. And from there, how people can be manipulated.
The plot of Blow Out is constantly twitching restlessly, thrashing like a cornered serpent; but it coils itself around a fascinating character study of a haunted man. It’s far from unusual for a film protagonist to succumb to obsession after stumbling across some conspiracy, but it’s slowly revealed how Jack looks on the case as a matter of personal and professional redemption. In a previous role with the police, a job went wrong and a man was killed. Travolta’s peak-period signature swagger slowly fades as he tumbles further down the rabbit hole and soon comes to realise that the people behind the ‘accident’ have set their sights on both him and Sally. Yet, his pride in his ability prevents him from bailing out.
The film also astounds on a technical level. As you would expect, the sound design is absolutely first rate. It’s amazing how compelling the focus on background minutiae can be, best summed in an incredible sequence in which Jack assembles a makeshift film of the crash from photographs, synching his recording over the top; image and sound – a tacit acknowledgement of the debt to Blow-Up and The Conversation. It’s a masterclass of editing, and intensely gripping. There is also a spectacular, continuously whirling circular shot as Jack realises his tapes have been wiped, that then cuts to an overhead shot of the destruction, unspooled films looped like entrails around the room; his hopes slaughtered.
While we’re undoubtedly invested in Jack’s quest, it’s hard to deny that poor Nancy Allen fares less well. Sally is absolutely integral to the story, but she isn’t really given a foothold, cast as a ditzy blonde and dangled as a potential love interest until the plot calls for something else. This isn’t the gleefully spiteful Allen of Carrie, or the compassionate human foil to RoboCop, she’s a narrative device, albeit a sweet one, and then ultimately a bitter and ironic punchline.
Still, what a punchline. De Palma is often accused of misogyny, and often with good reason, but while Sally and others are threatened by misogynistic violence (courtesy of the great John Lithgow, whose creepier mannerisms the director would exploit again in Raising Cain), Allen’s relatively reduced role is simply at the expense of De Palma’s childlike joy with his filmmaking toolbox, which Travolta’s Jack gets to embody here. It’s a baroque and operatic ode to film itself, and even the acknowledgement of its sinister uses – propaganda, manipulation, and misinformation – fails to make it anything less than a sheer love letter, and it comes complete with the requisite emotional payoff. De Palma might have arguably made better films. But he’s never made a more stylish, and compulsively watchable one.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 2 Aug 2021