The empire masterpiece: blow out


published in empire #334, April 2017

The point of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out is laid out in the opening moments: It’s all about finding a better scream. A low-budget sleazy horror-film director and his sound technician sit in a dark theatre somewhere in Philadelphia, playing back their showcase murder: the college dorm, the naked girls, the raising of the knife, the shower curtain pulled back by gloved hand. The schlocky tension creeps to a white buzz and is swiftly deflated by a completely flaccid scream. It’s just some actress who doesn’t mean it, they only hired her for her tits. The sound guy has to do better.

John Travolta is Jack Terry, that sound guy, who inadvertently records a murder while out at night collecting sounds by the river – a toad, a hooting owl, a couple on a late night stroll, all illustrated in trademark Brian De Palma splitscreen by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance, The Deer Hunter). There’s a loud bang and a car plunges through the barrier, into the river, taking its two passengers with it. Travolta dives in and pulls out Nancy Allen's escort from the wreckage (previously seen with Travolta four years prior to this hiding under the steps at Carrie’s senior prom), but the driver, a politician, is dead. Later, he pieces together footage from the incident courtesy of another witness (De Palma regular Dennis Franz) and analyses it like it’s the Zapruder film capturing JFK's assassination. He’s a man obsessed, embroiled in a political conspiracy and a cover-up so neat the police don’t believe it exists.

Like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, Blow Out is the sound guy’s answer to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, a murder witnessed not through a camera lens but a microphone. And because it’s a film about sound even the silences mean something. Sounds are the source of Terry’s everything: his art, his income, his strategy for doing good, and the thing that ultimately collapses him. He thinks his machines can save the world and all they do is destroy it. The tapes fall silent. 

In the scheme of Travolta’s filmography, Blow Out  comes after Grease and Saturday Night Fever, and immediately follows Urban Cowboy. It was a serious adult role, an anomaly in his filmography at that point to date. After this, Sylvester Stallone directed him in the extremely camp and arguably terrible Staying Alive, Jamie Lee Curtis has him sweating in short shorts in Perfect, and then he fell down the Look Who’s Talking hole. He would have stayed there had it not been for Blow Out — it’s a film so beloved by Quentin Tarantino that when he was casting Pulp Fiction, he only ever has one person in mind for Vincent Vega, even though Jack couldn’t be further apart from that addled assassin. 

This film more than any other illustrates De Palma’s extraordinary control over image and obsessive attention to detail. There are nods to Hitchcock in the silhouette of an extremely creepy John Lithgow ice-picking the shape of a Liberty Bell into the belly of a dead woman, and the omnipresent colour scheme of blue and red steadily builds – from the clothes to the cars, to the way the prostitute’s red high heels jerk as she’s being strangled, her blue toothbrush clattering to the floor beneath them – until it completely saturates the horrific climax under the flashes of the Liberty Day fireworks. Nothing is throwaway. It’s the kind of film that rewards a rewatch: everything is handed to you in the first five minutes, the rest is just picking it apart.

The ending of Blow Out is a fist to the guts, the kind that makes you sit in the cinema until long after the lights come up and the guy with the bin comes around and asks if you’re leaving. It premiered in 1981, and ran afoul of audiences who, after a decade of darkness, didn't want to feel punished by movies; they wanted a happy escape. Pauline Kael raved about it, Roger Ebert gave it four stars, his highest possible mark, but the movie made just $12 million, two-thirds of its budget. De Palma himself called it "a catastrophe".

Blow Out isn't remotely close to a catastrophe. It's an extraordinarily perceptive film about filmmaking, and it feels intensely personal. De Palma wrote the role of Sally for Allen, his then wife, and it’s the kind of script, originally called Personal Effects, that only a filmmaker could write. It’s about about a tortured man torturing himself in only the way an obsessive creative whose art lies in the miniscule can: over and over, not until it has no meaning, but until it grows and has so much meaning that it consumes him.

But it’s a good scream. It’s a good scream.