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The DefinitiveS
An ongoing series of in-depth essays and appreciations on the very best of cinema

Blow Out (1981)

Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, and Dennis Franz
Rated: R
Runtime: 108 min.

by Brian Eggert

The Definitives:
04/24/2011

Original Release Date:
07/24/1981

Brian De Palma’s Blow Out begins with a slick sequence from a killer’s point of view, akin to the subjective opening of John Carpenter’s Halloween. A voyeuristic, heavy-breathing killer watches young, mostly topless college girls in their dorm undressing and dancing. He makes his way inside and follows his chosen victim into the shower. His knife now in frame, he pulls back the curtain for campy Psycho moment only to be greeted by an underwhelming damsel “eek!” This is footage for a B-movie slasher called Coed Frenzy, and sound-effects man Jack Terry is tasked with taping the ineffectual screams of second-rate actresses chosen for their bust size over their acting talents. Jack’s producer burdens him to find a perfect guttural scream for the movie, a shriek that feels authentic and rings with terror. But by the film’s haunting finale, when Jack finally records the desired scream, De Palma has shattered the comic triviality of the opening sequence and confronted the viewer with the appalling truths of film making and film watching.

Blow Out is pure cinema, an exercise in elegant direction and refined style wherein technique and content merge into a singular body; yet the picture goes beyond pure cinema to question the mechanics of filmmaking. Outwardly, it contains all the traits of a great thriller, with plotlines involving a mystery, a rash of murders, and political conspiracy. Viewed on those terms alone, the film is no less an impressive piece of entertainment. Under these surface elements, however, reside an exploration into the power of filmmaking and what sound and image can reveal—or conceal—when cut and spliced together. De Palma, a director whose films are relentlessly linked to those of Alfred Hitchcock, has been accused of imitating the cinematic grammar of Hitchcock and other directors. And though De Palma’s signatures are often undeniably Hitchcockian in their intertextuality and polish, with Blow Out he goes beyond Hitchcock’s model and puts forth his own integrated obsessions which, present throughout his career as the defining signifier of his originality and importance as an auteur, demand an investigation of cinema itself. 

De Palma emerged in the late 1960s fresh out of film school with extensive knowledge of cinema history and film theory, and—along with Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and John Carpenter—became a progressive member of his era’s New Hollywood directors to project their cinematic knowhow onscreen. Though perhaps less widely known and honored, and certainly less commercially successful than his contemporaries, his contributions to the artform are considerable. He can be credited with discovering Robert De Niro with his early experimental film Greetings (1968) and its expansion piece Hi, Mom! (1970); his early work encouraged Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) to pursue filmmaking; he later inspired Quentin Tarantino to do the same. Throughout the years, more than any other director of his generation, he remains dedicated to making movies about movies both directly and indirectly. As a result, an arsenal of cinematic trickery and thematic fixations occupy ‘A Brian De Palma Film’.

Each work contains airs of precision and control, and feels executed with incredible attention to detail. Nothing in a De Palma film is random or out of place, rather each work feels carefully composed and intentional. His formal elements are selected to emphasize their presence, reminding the viewer that cinema is not reality: He uses split screens, bird’s eye view shots, Dutch angles, point-of-view camera perspectives, split diopter lenses, and long tracking shots performed with Stedicam equipment. Every element in De Palma’s frame has been considered; he often shoots in deep focus and activates his entire depth of field—and so there always seems to be someone listening in on the conversation in the backdrop, or looking-on from afar, and frequently they have some role to play later on. Time and again his approach, though Hitchcockian in its technical flawlessness, combines formal artistry with graphic content; with a few rare exceptions, De Palma’s films are rooted in crimes and sexuality. Prostitutes and gaze-stricken men are recurrent characters in his films, and, with his camera so often dwelling on a sexualized feminine object, he invites accusations of misogyny that, in several cases, leave his work difficult to defend. His exploitative intentions and sporadic missteps aside, De Palma’s approach balances artistry and craft with a confidence found only in the most preeminent filmmakers.

Each De Palma film takes inspiration from a classic, often with enough lucidity to make his sources readable, occasionally downright obvious. And though traditionally such a quality would be described with a raised eyebrow as derivative, even called outright artistic plagiarism, De Palma remains an auteur of influences. He adopts the stylistic or narrative traits of Michael Powell, Howard Hawks, Michelangelo Antonioni, and most habitually Alfred Hitchcock, incorporating aspects of his most beloved filmmakers into his own work, but upholds equal measures artistic inspiration and adoration for cinema through a reinterpretive approach. De Palma achieves a rare balance between inspiration and homage that results in a true original. Much like Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson, he belongs on a short list of filmmakers who innovate on established material for a wholly distinctive, and rather brilliant, post-modern style. And so, born from Antonioni’s Blowup and by extension Coppola’s The Conversation, De Palma’s Blow Out saturates these ambiguous, searching works with Hitchcockian sheen for his own objective. The existentialist thesis-of-a-movie Blowup follows a photographer who snaps a shot that may contain evidence of a murder. The photographer investigates by enlarging the image and returning to the scene for clues, but the more he examines and amplifies the photo, the more distorted it becomes. The involved parties propel his paranoia when they seize all evidence of the picture, while Antonioni’s direction forces the audience to scrutinize minor details and draw their own conclusions. In a similar scenario, except with audio as the central medium, The Conversation involves a wire tapper who records a vague exchange which, after closer inspection of the tape, seems to contain discussion of a murder scheme. Unlike Blowup, Coppola’s film vindicates the protagonist’s suspicions when he confronts the conspirators with more than just his obsession, but the result leaves him overcome by the same paranoia that first propelled his compulsive quest for answers.

Blow Out contains similar themes of obsession and paranoia with a protagonist that manipulates photos and audio to reveal dangerous secrets imbedded inside. While at a Philadelphia park one night, Travolta’s Jack Terry records new stock sound effects—shown with the clever application of De Palma’s oft-used split diopter lenses to connect the noise and its source—and witnesses a speeding car experience a blowout and swerve uncontrollably into a nearby lake. He swims to the rescue and saves a young woman, Sally Bedina (Nancy Allen), but the other passenger drowns. Later, after learning Governor McRyan, a future presidential candidate, was in the car, Jack listens to the audio he recorded from the incident more closely and, upon slowing down the tape, discovers what he believes is a gunshot that disabled the tire. Faced with the notion of conspiracy and an assassination attempt, Terry, a former wire tapper, learns that by chance a photographer, Manny Karp (Dennis Franz), had recorded the event with a video camera. Terry obtains stills from Karp’s footage from a local tabloid and combines it with his audio, but the whole incident remains unclear without Karp’s original negative.

Meanwhile, De Palma injects his film with slasher suspense from a seemingly unconnected string of murders by “The Liberty Bell Strangler” in the Philadelphia area, the victims left with a sloppy Liberty Bell carved into their flesh. A sinister killer, Burke (John Lithgow, in his most chilling performance), strangles prostitutes, but only because he must kill Sally, a witness to the political assassination, and make her death seem unconnected. Of course, Burke is a pure maniac devoid of backstory or motivations other than bloodlust, though he serves as an incredibly effective villain, a pure force of unquestionable evil. Jack pursues his curiosity and questions Sally about the incident, learning that Sally was hired to bed McRyan, while Karp, an expert at snapping illicit photos, captured footage for an intended smear campaign. Though, neither player was expecting an assassination. And even with Jack’s audio proof, authorities refuse to believe his conspiracy theory; just seven years after Watergate, everyone wants to believe the politician’s death was accidental.

Jack begins to fall for Sally, a character intentionally naïve and weak and used by everyone around her, his heroics idealized both in his protection of an innocent and his determination to expose the truth. He enlists her to acquire Karp’s original footage and with it, using sound and image, he creates a complete picture of the gunshot preceding the blowout. With this, Jack contacts a reporter who says he will air the details of their theories with Jack’s movie. Sally arranges to meet the contact at a train station, and Jack wires her to listen in from a distance (we learn that, years earlier, one of Jack’s wires botched an investigation into police corruption and got a detective killed, so he takes every precaution). Surveying from a distance, Jack loses them on a subway just when he begins to suspect the reporter, while the audience can already see Burke has taken the reporter’s place. “Liberty Day” celebrations and exuberant crowds slow Jack’s desperate race to reach Sally, who he can hear in an earpiece calling for help. Jack arrives with Sally’s last screams, as Burke carves up another victim of “The Liberty Bell Strangler”. Too late, Jack kills Burke and with him the only evidence of his conspiracy theory. But tragic irony leaves him with a perfect scream recorded for Coed Frenzy.

While Blowup and The Conversation (whose respective visual and aural themes are spliced together here) inspired Blow Out’s plot, there are moments in the film, and all through De Palma’s career, where in both style and content his work seems to channel the very being of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock began his career with tales of murder and spies, and with time and increased popularity his work became more complex in terms of narrative and execution. At the end of his career, Hitchcock’s output had reached heights of form and technical artistry, while his stories dwelled on notions of violent men inflicting their sexual obsessions on women. Titles like Vertigo, Marnie, Psycho, and Frenzy each contain such themes, growing more potent in their descriptions as the industry’s tolerance for explicit content grew. De Palma’s filmmaking materializes from Hitchcock’s and takes the next step forward, exploring the same themes in more potent detail. Del Palma’s best work, from the middle part of his career, adopts Hitchcockian subject matter and techniques, while his intermittent failures lack such stylization.

Indeed, many of De Palma’s films find their roots in Hitchcock homage and propel the perception that De Palma is little more than a Hitchcock imitator, beginning with Sisters (1973), wherein, recalling the second half of Psycho, a snooping reporter pokes around for answers in a sequence straight out of Rear Window, and finds that one of two double-ringer twins has murderous tendencies. In Obsession (1976), De Palma borrows heavily from Vertigo for the first time in a tale about a man in love with a woman that resembles his late wife. His most intensely (and cleverly) Hitchcockian work remains Dressed to Kill (1980), which opens like a Vertigo-inspired voyeur tale (complete with a wonderful, wordless museum pursuit sequence) and closes with a Psycho-esque shower scene. Body Double (1984) offers a mirror image of Rear Window. John Lithgow plays another maniac in Raising Cain (1992), influenced heavily by Psycho, down to a psychologist detailing, in exceedingly clinical terms, the warped mental state of the killer. The underrated Snake Eyes (1996), a film closely linked to Blow Out, borrows its incredibly fluid opening tracking shot from Rope, Hitchcock’s drama comprised of only a handful of extended shots. These examples are only a few, where further evidence appears even in De Palma’s more popularized films: The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible, and even Scarface.  

De Palma’s oeuvre seems split between overtly Hitchcockian-themed works and titles that employ technical precision worthy of Hitchcock (for example, The Bonfire of the Vanities and Carlito’s Way). Given this enduring connection, De Palma has often been criticized for repeatedly returning to the Master of Suspense for inspiration. But then, is emulating Hitchcock really a problem in purely cinematic or storytelling terms? Or do De Palma’s detractors merely resent the notion of open-faced homage (or De Palma’s proven ability to execute such an homage with inspired care)? When so many filmmakers try and fail to capture Hitchcock’s talent in their films, De Palma’s controlled stylization remains second only to Hitchcock himself. There are moments in Dressed to Kill and Body Double where the arrangement feels so pitch-perfect that we begin questioning the possibilities of transmigration. Then again, Hitchcock’s films present only the vocabulary for De Palma to reinterpret into a new cinematic lexis both critical of, and enamored with what cinema can do. In this regard, by employing all the themes and stylization of a Hitchcock picture but without any direct story references to Hitchcock films, Blow Out is the filmmaker’s masterwork.

De Palma famously contradicted Jean-Luc Godard’s axiom “Photography is truth. And cinema is truth 24-frames-a-second” when he said “The camera lies all the time; lies 24-times-per-second”. His antagonism toward cinematic truth unreserved, De Palma’s belief has never been realized to more lucid or compelling effect than with Blow Out, where, both onscreen and behind the camera, he demonstrates how sound and image are assembled into an elaborately conceived deception. Moviegoers instinctually believe what they see and hear, but De Palma challenges viewers to question their senses and consider the process of filmmaking, how through a few simple cuts, video and audio are shaped into narrative or propaganda. To expose these concepts in narrative form, De Palma integrates themes of political corruption and American iconography into the mise-en-scène of the film, allowing him to make the crucial connection between filmmaking and the political propaganda.

For example, the climax is loaded with the patriotic visual trappings of Liberty Day festivities; notions of Liberty Bells sliced into victims and De Palma’s frame tinged with American reds and blues are beset by the shocking image of Sally crying for help with a massive American flag consuming the backdrop. And though De Palma avoids direct references to the historical foundations of his plot—the Chappaquiddick incident, Watergate, and the JFK assassination—the film’s grim conclusion implies the characters are victims of conspiring political powers. But De Palma never resorts to preachy messages on corruption; his mise-en-scène does the work, enough so that the political undercurrents in Blow Out could be forgotten altogether next to its thrills and chills. De Palma never forgets that his yarn is about Jack finding his scream, so while he exploits the political imagery to thrust the plot forward, he ends his picture with Jack, back in the seedy B-movie studio, watching the film’s opening shower scene, now with Sally’s cries looped in to haunting effect. “Good scream,” he says, defeated. “Good scream.” On the most perceptible level, De Palma remarks that the naïve and idealistic few who still blindly believe in honest American politics, in spite of the ongoing scandals and cover-ups, are victims of the political machine, just as Jack and Sally have become.

But De Palma’s political thriller surface in Blow Out has the same pretense of Tarantino’s World War II setting in Inglourious Basterds; both films inhabit common cinematic genres to make a greater commentary on filmmaking. Consider the title sequence of De Palma’s film, a clever split-screen image of a news broadcast on one half, and Jack listening to and labeling a series of audio tapes on the other half. As the anchors report on Governor McRyan’s appearance at the “Liberty Day Ball”, Jack logs the insignificant sound effects of footsteps and breaking glass. The sequence culminates when Jack plays a gunshot effect, which is juxtaposed against McRyan’s quote about a hopeful future. Finally Jack catalogs the plop of a body hitting the ground, the effect delightfully macabre in its implications, and a wonderfully suggestive use of split-screens and editing. This would not be the last time De Palma used multiple images to evoke a political message. In his 2007 film Redacted, he uses a mixture of security camera footage, internet videos, digital camera recordings, and surveillance video to tell the story of an Arab girl raped and murdered by American soldiers serving in Iraq, its powerful anti-war repercussions pondering the dehumanization of American soldiers.

In 1980, De Palma’s unapologetic slasher Dressed to Kill ended with a shower scene not unlike the one that opens Blow Out. Nancy Allen’s heroine receives the Psycho treatment from a subjective camera killer, only to awaken from her nightmare disturbed but unharmed. That feeling of safety bestowed by filmic catharsis has no place in Blow Out, as De Palma communicates in the first scene, elevating the film into a dramatic realm as he renders Dressed to Kill mere escapist fun. Conceptually his most serious-minded work to date, the film balances formal daring and emotional involvement, when the director’s works are so often only the former. But the dark sentiments punctuated by the tragic conclusion guaranteed Blow Out’s failure at the box-office, as De Palma refuses to restore the audience’s sense of safety in the finale, like so many Hitchcockian thrillers do without fail. And despite passionate reviews from the occasional critic—Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert wrote enthusiastic appraisals—the film, much like Hitchcock’s Vertigo, received cold responses, only to later be called the director’s greatest achievement.

Unlike The Conversation’s solitary brooding or Blowup’s abstract puzzlework, Blow Out resolves to both entertain and engage its audience in the classic Hitchcock sense. On one level, the film could be viewed as merely an involved thriller; on another, it shows De Palma dissecting his craft to better understand it. He exhibits how sound and image are assembled into cinema, and how a better understanding of the two metonyms develops an understanding of their construction into a complete metaphor. By way of plot, the audience comes to grasp cinema’s influence as not merely a frivolity, but a prominent and potentially dangerous art form that, in the right hands, wields considerable propagandistic power. De Palma transcends his Antonioni and Coppola sources by incorporating the same themes into a yarn that reaches a larger audience through its basic thriller setup and, from the plot’s many implications, leaves his audience to consider how films are made, the relationship between a film and its viewer, and the increasingly dwindling line between reality and reality on film.