Criterion Corner: Blow Out (1981)
One of the more enjoyable aspects of watching movies for a living (well, a semi-living at least) is seeing how the same story structures can move and change and reinterpret themselves over the decades as they are approached by different screenwriters, directors, producers and actors. There are only so many stories (from a foundational perspective, at least) and many, many more movies in the century of what we would consider film has we know it now, so there are bound to be some repeats, intentional or unintentional, real or imagined, and tracking them as society changes around them can be a fascinating experience. One of the more fruitful tropes that saw light every decade from the 50’s through the 80’s was the “accidental mystery,” wherein our protagonist becomes privy to a murder without intending to. 1954 brought Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window, with Jimmy Stewart and his fateful pair of binoculars, confined to a wheelchair and riddled with cabin fever. Twelve years later, Michelangelo Antonioni took the concept to the Mod streets of London and fashion photography with 1966’s Blowup. Less than a decade later, Francis Ford Coppola took the Blowup concept into the New Hollywood movement with The Conversation in ‘74. And finally, Brian De Palma came along with Blow Out (the title a clear allusion to Blowup), telling the story of a sound producer inadvertently discovering a political assassination plot covered up as a car accident and the deep well of conspiracy that buries it below the public consciousness.
The follow the likes of Stewart, David Hennings and Gene Hackman, De Palma turned to Hollywood superstar John Travolta, only a few years removed from Saturday Night Fever and Grease. As Jack Terry, he slums around Philadelphia searching for the perfect sound effects for schlocky, low budget horror skinflicks of questionable quality. After witnessing a car careen into a creek and rescuing one of the passengers, Sally (Nancy Allen), Jack discovers the sound of a gunshot in his audio recordings that indicates the accident might not have been all that accidental after all. Complicating matters is the fact that the driver was a front runner in an upcoming Presidential election, and the police aren’t particularly interested in listening to Terry’s claims that the accident was an intentional act. Soon, women across Philadelphia who resemble Sally begin to show up dead at the hands of the shadowy Burke (John Lithgow), the noose surrounding this innocent bystander who happened to point his microphone in the wrong direction at the wrong time begins to tighten.
De Palma’s script paints Terry as a man of generally pure good, the sort of man who wouldn’t hesitate to dive into a body of water to save total strangers. It’s one thing to be innocent and another entirely to be actively good, and that sense of altruism is a necessary trait for the sort of person who keeps digging deeper and fighting as the opposition gets tougher and tougher and people start dying. This version of Philadelphia hides danger around every corner, a vast web of sinister dealings blocking his crusade for the truth at every turn. Blow Out saw release in 1981, but its aesthetics are still rooted in the 70’s urban grit of Taxi Driver or Dog Day Afternoon. But there is an idealism in De Palma’s protagonist, putting his film in notable contrast to the rise of the anti-hero that was so often used by his contemporaries in the New Hollywood movement. This is not an attempt to give the film a softer edge by providing a lead the audience can believe in. Far from it. Indeed, the opposite is far closer to the case in practice. After all, the most virtuous in us all is the most tragic to be taken down.
To combat this ceaseless conspiratorial cynicism that sets up roadblocks at every turn, Travolta keeps his character going by focusing on the procedure of it all. Blow Out is as much a mystery as it is a thriller, after all, and when it becomes clear no one else will be willing to take up his cause, the only recourse is to solve it himself. The film is at its best when it becomes a procedural, including a wonderful sequence following Terry as he syncs up his audio with video taken by another witness (a wonderfully sleazy Dennis Franz). As he assembles his own Zapruder film, winding and rewinding the audio, marking points on the reel to reel tape, it feels authentic and thrilling especially in the modern day, a peek back at the world of analog audio and video, where a computer couldn’t do so much of the work. Travolta approaches these scenes with a dogged determinism mixed with craft and confidence, so assured in what he knows being an expert in his field. It’s a excellent cast, with Allen comfortably playing an ingenue with a bit more to her than meets the eye, and a whole host of unsavory characters bringing the seed to life.
De Palma has been known for some time as one of the true masters of the thriller genre, and with Blow Out it’s easy to see why. The third act is a crash course in ratcheting tension, building suspense through a wonderfully unorthodox chase sequence. It all culminates in what could be one of the great endings in cinema, the sort of moment that drops the jaw to the floor and keeps it there. Perfectly performed by Travolta and perfectly scored by Pino Donaggio, it caps the film with just the sort of New Hollywood cynicism that so defined the movement. Blow Out fits snugly into the trajectory and history of the accidental witness movie, treading much of the same ground as its predecessors but with its own unique style and setting. So many of De Palma’s films were considered trashy failures upon initial release, but have grown in stature over time. As Blow Out gets a second life in the decades following its release, it’s clear De Palma has made something special here.