Under the Radar: Brian De Palma’s ‘Blow Out’

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Blow OutBrian De Palma is a name revered by many a cinephile. His films have drawn their inspiration from the greatest minds in film and subsequently served as the inspiration for generations of filmmakers flourishing in his wake. Even for those who aren’t as obsessive with their love of movies, when forced to recite the first few great directors that spring to mind, De Palma’s name will inevitably find its way onto the list.

In spite of his importance to American cinema, and as much as it pains me to make this confession, I have been woefully ignorant of De Palma’s catalogue for most of my life. The titles I had seen were limited to Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible. Those are three great movies—or perhaps two great movies and one decent movie—but they don’t exactly encapsulate his style and talents. With the aide of Criterion, I set about to correct this oversight. What I discovered in Blow Out is a film that has already burrowed its way into my heart and earned a place among my favorites.

Blow Out is the story of Jack Terry, a soundman plying his trade for a bargain basement film studio specializing in schlocky horror. When the studio’s latest project is found to be lacking one useable wind effect, Jack is sent out to do a little night recording at a local park. Before he can complete his task, a car careens over the side of a bridge and into a creek. Jack manages to save the female passenger but regrettably not the driver, who turns out to be a United States Senator. Quickly, Jack is instructed to clear his memory of the events, as the woman in the car was not the Senator’s wife. Jack grudgingly agrees…until he listens to the tape. Jack becomes convinced that the car crash was no accident, but rather a sinister assassination. Will he convince anyone else of this conspiracy? Will he even live to tell anyone?

Before popping in the Criterion Blu-ray—an optimal viewing method for one’s first encounter with Blow Out—I did some quick research on De Palma’s recognizable tropes. This proved to be entirely unnecessary as the man beautifully conveys his artistic penchants within the first half hour. De Palma’s films often feature split-screen cinematography that allows him to tell the same section of a story from two perspectives at once. These lead to some wholly captivating shots that drop us into the psyche of the characters in a way few filmmakers can. We don’t just watch as Jack tries to deduce the solution to a particular riddle, we see his brain process every conceivable detail in a cerebral symphony.

De Palma’s oft-revisited concept of voyeurism is alive and well in Blow Out. Apparently (and here we discover the fruits of even a minimal amount of research), De Palma’s parents separated when he was very young, after his mother accused his father of having an affair. Unable to reconcile this information with his ideal of his father, he actually followed the man around with recording equipment trying to catch him in the act. Jack Terry, with his incorruptible microphone, is the personification of this childhood anxiety. There is also a specific story device about a sleazy detective who uses a female confederate to catch men in the throes of illicit passion in order to blackmail them. This small insight into De Palma the man adds immensely to the impact of Blow Out, a film in which he is clearly exorcising some major demons.

Blow Out Blu-rayBlow Out features two performances that are arguably unmatched in the whole of the careers of those actors. John Travolta is charming, as is his wont, but also darker and more psychologically tormented than in any of his other films. During the end scene—one of the greatest gut punches in cinema—Travolta’s simultaneous callousness and suffering is painful to watch. Providing the foil to Travolta’s Jack Terry is John Lithgow as the mysterious operative seeking to keep the truth about the crash hidden from the world. His icy, calculated violence is so genuine as to terrify me, convincing me to refrain from revisiting episodes of 3rd Rock From the Sun. He is manipulative to a T and methodically effective as a killer. I particularly enjoy his work in the subway station.

Blow Out is ostensibly a remake of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, in which a photographer believes he’s captured a murder on film. However, Blow Out does a far better job of exploring the central conceit and weaving the lives of the characters around the plot, as opposed to letting their eccentricities subvert it. De Palma was inspired by, among others, Alfred Hitchcock, and this admiration shows in his similar “wrong man” story structure as well as his morbid playfulness with macabre material. This inspiration is felt to an even more extreme degree in Dressed to Kill, a film I watched immediately after Blow Out, creating a combo that I think amounts to the perfect De Palma double feature. Quentin Tarantino has made no bones about borrowing from De Palma; the split screen of Elle donning her nurse’s uniform in Kill Bill Vol. 2 as well as his usage of Blow Out’s central music cue in Death Proof are prime examples. So again, De Palma is a filmmaker as beholden to his heroes as his followers are to him.

Once again, Criterion goes out of its way to provide the best possible release of this American classic. It almost goes without saying that the film transfer is gorgeous and damn near flawless throughout. But it’s the sound restoration that is both highly impressive and specifically critical. Blow Out uses the art of sound as an instrument of intrigue and suspense. It is therefore vital to a high-def transfer to treat the sound design with great reverence. Criterion’s Blu-ray masterfully reproduces every auditory nuance so that each sound registers like a unique, solitary voice that tells its own story.

This may not be a “lesser-known” film and therefore its qualification for this column may seem dubious. However, I hope to encourage any and all who were as criminally in-the-dark as I was to seek out Blow Out, which hits shelves April 26 on Blu-ray, and give over to the sound and fury.