Brian DePalma's Blow Out (1981) is a perplexing jigsaw puzzle. It's a political thriller...well, sort of, yet far removed from the bland prestige that usual accompanies that sub-genre. It's a love story...uh...in a way, since its leading man, imperfect hero cum sound editor Jack Terry (John Travolta) is hopelessly obsessed with the screams of a reformed 'working girl', Sally (Nancy Allen). It's a crime story...in spots, particularly during its climax; a traumatic race against time that uncharacteristically ends with the psychotic assassin, Burke (John Lithgow) murdering our heroine.
In retrospect, the most interesting aspect about Blow Out is that it manages to sustain all these narrative threads in harmonious balance – mostly. Its departure from our conventional expectations for virtue triumphing over evil is usurped, even more ambitiously diverted with each new plot twist. Perhaps the most astute assessment of the film came from noted critic Pauline Kael – a huge DePalma fan - who suggested that Blow Out represents that seemingly irreconcilable crossroads between 'art', 'trash' and 'dreams'. As a barometer of DePalma's work in totem Blow Out most definitely illustrates the director at his zenith.
DePalma is particularly engaged, his pacing of the action taut from first frame to last as he strains the audience’s nerves into a nail-biting frenzy. His is an exhilarating roller coaster ride that effortlessly bridges the chasms between art, trash and dreams. The screenplay by DePalma and Bill Mesce Jr. opens on a generic B-slasher movie, set in an all-girl's college dorm. For a moment, our disillusionment is overwhelming. How could the man who gave us Carrie (1976) have degenerated into such low brow camp? The answer is deceptively revealed as the intended nude female victim of a paunchy knife-toting mama's boy screams in terror at the sight of his drawn weapon. Only what emerges from the naked blonde in the shower is hardly a scream.
We cut to the relative safety of an editing room inside Liberty Studios, a fly-by-night hole in the wall where sound technician, Jack Terry (Travolta) has been assigned the task of dubbing in an actress who can provide him with a shriek of terror. There's just one problem...none of the women he auditions are any good. This opener perhaps represents the first thread in DePalma's mélange – what Kael has referred to as 'trash' that Jack must somehow turn into 'art'. But can he do it? Jack's quest for new sound effects to add to his library lead him to a catwalk beneath a bridge in Philadelphia where his calibrated equipment records various natural sounds on reel to reel tape. After a few false starts Jack's microphone picks up a gunshot...or is it a blow out? A car comes into view, loses control and careens over the embankment, plunging into the river with Governor McRyan (John Hoffmeister) and a call girl, Sally (Allen) inside.
Jack dives into the frigid waters, discovers McRyan dead and Sally about to drown. Saving Sally from her fate Jack is given the third degree at the hospital by the governor's aid, Lawrence Henry (John McMartin), who suggests that Jack keep silent about Sally; a request very reluctantly agreed upon. Only there is something much more sinister and troubling about this harmless cover up, presumably to spare the Governor's grieving widow and his family their dignity. Meanwhile, amateur photographer, Manny Karp (Dennis Franz) announces to the press that he has 8mm footage of the governor's 'accident'. Unbeknownst to Jack, Manny and Sally were part of a scheme to blackmail the governor, thus preventing his bid for the U.S. presidency. What is as yet unclear to Sally is that the man who fired the fatal gunshot that killed McRyan, the assassin Burke (Lithgow), had also been hired by Henry, not to scandalize the Governor’s reputation but to eliminate him from the race altogether.
To blur this trail of conspiracy Burke kills several prostitutes in the downtown Philadelphia area, all of them bearing a striking resemblance to Sally. Dubbed 'The Liberty Bell Stalker' by the police, the press’s rabid fascination with the Governor's death fades into the backdrop of the local news. The sophistication with which DePalma slowly dispatches these seemingly obvious threads of a grotesque cover up unfurling before our very eyes is what elevates Blow Out's premise from simple entertainment to pure 'art' - his second thread as outlined by Kael. Regrettably, Jack refuses to accept the official cause of death as 'accidental'. Instead, he begins a flawed romance with Sally, one predicated on learning her complicity in what she believed was a simple blackmail scheme. Realizing that Sally is a relative naïve of the bigger conspiracy Jack convinces her to wear a wire to help him draw Burke out of hiding.
It's a flawed premise, concocted on the fly and it costs Sally her life. Yet, Sally's blind devotion to Jack is both touching and appalling. She represents DePalma's final thread - the 'dream'. Without reason or even an ounce of self-preservation, Sally unwittingly places her life in Jack's hands, believing the old adages 'crime must pay' and 'good will triumph over evil'. Regrettably, the film's harrowing climax proves everyone wrong. Sally has overestimated Jack's heroism as well as his love for her, just as Jack has underestimated Burke's cunning to outwit his reliance on technology. Jack loses Sally as a result of his own obsessions. Left with only Sally's recorded final screams of terror as she is being slaughtered by Burke, Jack inserts these death cries as his overdub into the B-movie; a cruel and haunting homage that will continue to call out to him from Sally’s grave.
In these final moments Blow Out is heartbreaking with Travolta really giving us his all; an uncanny and paralytic frustration seeping into every fiber of Jack’s being. This is very uncharacteristic for a movie that began with the stock premise of a 'who done it?' Yet, even with the killer's identity made known to the audience – if not the public within the film - and long before its final showdown, Blow Out loses none of its tormenting dread. In fact, the climactic ‘cat and mouse’ chase through the crowded streets of a city on the verge of urban renewal, and during its Founder’s Day Parade no less, sets the stage for Jack's eerie purgatory that follows.
Sally, the embodiment of Jack’s 'dreams' is destroyed, only to be reborn as 'a sound effect' for his ‘trashy’ B-movie. Few parallels of art imitating life are as macabre; the man who ought to have been Sally’s protector instead exploiting her gruesome death for the sake of his art. The real crime - the conspiracy to kill McRyan goes unpunished, despite Burke’s death. In the final analysis, Blow Out knots together the threads of art, trash and dreams into a perverse mobile forever dangling over the audience, always just a little out of reach for our imperfect hero; with our own collective consciousness also caught in Jack’s 'what might have been' nightmare ending.
Criterion Home Video brings Blow Out to Blu-ray. The transfer is noted as ‘director approved’ but Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography is given short shrift. There are even a few instances of edge enhancement. Check out the rather obvious shimmer on front grills and chrome of parked cars as Jack and Sally pull up to the train station for her rendezvous with Burke. Regrettably, this is a 2K scan made at a time when 4K has already been established as 'the norm' in hi-def mastering and 6K is increasingly preferred. Blow Out's image has adopted a rather severe 'red' hue that doesn’t strike me as faithful to its original source materials. Flesh tones are frequently orangey. Grain is thick in appearance. But the overall presentation is considerably darker than on the DVD from MGM. While the DVD looked too bright with boosted contrast levels the Blu-ray appears just a tad too dim with a loss of fine detail during night scenes.
Criterion maintains a faithful 2.0 stereo track that, although dated is very clean and solid. Extras are the real plum in this pudding: an hour long interview with DePalma, new interviews with Nancy Allen, DePalma's 1967 feature Murder a la Mod, plus a new interview with Steadicam inventor, Garrett Brown and the film's original theatrical trailer. Overall, Blow Out on Blu-ray is recommended, although with slight misgivings. It’s not a perfect effort and that’s a genuine shame.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)