Blow Out is one of Brian De Palma’s best films, and one whose status has grown in the years since its release. It’s a movie about the craft of making movies, and deconstructing them. As such it pays homage to specific earlier pictures (Blow-up, The Conversation) while maintaining the stylistic flourish that is so thoroughly De Palma. It’s a movie all about the establishing idea, which it explores with astonishing virtuosity. The only side effect of this is there’s a natural deflation when the bag has run out of gas. Still, this is one of the director’s wittiest and cleverest movies and, even if it’s restrained by his sometimes-grand guignol standards, Blow Out pays off with possibly the most twisted of any of his twisted endings.
The voyeurism/surveillance obsession that by this point appears to be De Palma’s raison d’être as a filmmaker finally finds a more elegant home than in the horror genre. This is De Palma’s conspiracy movie. But the joke is, it’s an anti-conspiracy movie; the lone nut did do it. This puncturing of expectations is typical of the ghoulish humour that permeates Blow Out, as the director lays waste to the previous decade’s paranoia of malign intent form unseen powers-that-be. De Palma seems set on confounding genre expectations throughout, while simultaneously embracing them in a manner that borders on parody. And yet, he isn’t seeking to subvert his narrative. Rather, he seems to be saying that life’s just one long poor taste joke (Pauline Kael argues, in a review feted by Quentin Tarantino, that De Palma plays it all straight; I’d counter that, if he’s doing that, the overblown Pino Donaggio score is a misstep, since it invites sniggers in reply to its gushing swoons). Maybe such biting of the hand that feeds him contributed to the Blow Out’s box office failure. There’s a dovetailing of his personal predilections with the commercial instincts that served him so well in Carrie and Dressed to Kill, but it wouldn’t be until the ‘90s that he’d triumph in the spy/conspiracy genre, with the biggest hit of his career (Mission: Impossible) and Snake Eyes.
The most obvious conspiracy reference point in the movie is the Zapruder film; the death of a politician caught for posterity. But De Palma’s take is more mundane, and typically sexualised. The politician in question, Governor George McRyan, is widely expected to announce his democratic presidential candidacy but he has been set up for a Candid Camera canoodingly scenario by entrapment. That part, at least, is an actual conspiracy; his opponent wants him out of the picture, but through scandal rather than death. De Palma’s scenario would be closer to Marilyn Monroe bringing down JFK, or more specifically the Chappaquiddick Incident in which a passenger in Senator Ted Kennedy’s car died when his vehicle plunged from a bridge off Chappaquiddick Island. Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene, and the resulting scandal was thought to be instrumental in his decision not to run for president in the subsequent two elections. The death of Nelson Rockefeller several years before the film was made has also been suggested as an inspiration. Murmurs were that he died in the presence of an aide whom he may have been having an affair with. It’s the grubby goings-on that interest De Palma, and in his mind one’s downfall is more likely to result from carnal thoughts than a bid to change the world. A TV report states that the Senator has issued “a sweeping condemnation of Whitehouse policies”, but that’s really par for the course and we hear nothing more specific (compare this to The Parallax View, where the politician announces himself very directly as a force opposing the status quo; so he has to go).
Jack: Is this known as obtaining objective eyewitness testimony? Because if it is, forget it.
When it comes to cover-ups, the pressure on Travolta’s Jack Terry is at the behest of aides keen to preserve the wholesome image of McRyan. There’s no suggestion of threats to Jack’s life (or to Nancy Allen’s Sally, the “escort” girl who was in McRyan’s car). At the hospital, having rescued Sally from the watery tomb of the senator’s automobile following the crash, the senator’s aide pleads with Jack to keep schtum. The police have been taken care of, Terry is informed. Instinctively desirous of the truth to be told, Jack protests, only to capitulate in the face of the probing “What difference does it make to you?”; it makes all the difference to the senator’s family. The exchange explains Jack’s baffled response to police questioning minutes earlier, in which the cop appears keen to ignore Sally’s presence.
Jack: Yes I heard the blow out but the first sound I heard was a bang.
I’ll come on to the actual threat posed shortly, but it’s so heightened as to question anyone’s state of mind who thinks De Palma is taking this whole thing seriously. What’s noticeable, rewatching the movie, is that the area of straight-playing extends from Jack himself. That’s down to both Travolta’s performance and De Palma’s captivation with Jack’s craft. Many have attested to the quality of the actor’s work here, and it was clearly key in Tarantino chasing him for Pulp Fiction. Travolta brings a naturalism and wit to Jack that allows him to exist in both the cartoon world of Sally and John Lithgow’s lunatic gun-for hire Burke and the scenes where we are rapt at his technical process and prowess. It is his technique that dazzles, be it recording sounds, visualising the crash from playing and replaying the audio, or piecing together the photographic evidence and furnishing it with a soundtrack. There is no room for asides or sneers here, because De Palma is delighted to expose and glorify the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. He does so confident in the knowledge that he has seized upon an unassailable narrative hook. It’s partly why, once the process is complete, the director flounders slightly. And it explains why he returns to a play on conventions.
Jack: I like to think this is our finest film.
That’s not to say that the director doesn’t have fun with the apparatus of filmmaking. But he gets that part of the larkiness out of the way in the first 10 minutes. There are occasional call backs when Jack returns to the studio, in order to remind us of the final sick joke of the last scene (itself the equivalent of the double take shock ending we’ve come to associate with the director). The opening sequence is a very funny parody of the in-vogue slasher movie, one De Palma had undoubtedly influenced with his voyeuristic leanings, shock endings, and prolific stabbings… but at its core was all a bit beneath him. Donaggio’s pulsing synth score is also extremely funny during this sequence, as De Palma riffs on Halloween and Friday 13th.
An unseen killer’s presence is felt through point of view camera work, as he inevitably hangs about outside a college sorority house. Inside, nubile students are dancing in their skimpies, shagging, and showering. De Palma is setting the scene here for his own crazed, unmotivated psycho (Burke); both are marked out by their heavy breathing, as they are invigorated for their kill. He also seems to be taking a rise out of his past efforts; the glimpse we have of the killer bears an uncanny resemblance to one Stephen King (strangely perhaps, as Carrie was one of the few movie adaptations the author praised). And, lest we forget, Dressed to Kill and Carrie lingered on shower scenes during their opening sequences. This one ends decidedly more mirthfully, however. The maniac (as credited) is poised to kill the showering lovely when she lets out the least terrifying scream imaginable (“It’s hers… and it’s shit” Jack’s producer complains). There’s a cheerful back-and-forth with Sam (Peter Boyden) regarding his and Jack’s brief collaboration (five films in two years), culminating in their latest, the all too believably titled Co-ed Frenzy. It’s his producer who tasks him with getting some new sound effects (wind, mostly), leading to Jack’s fateful intervention at the bridge. As for the scream, when Jack pokes his head round the door later his succinct response to two auditions is “Keep looking”. It’s this that leads directly to the final scene. It would be unfair to suggest Blow Out is especially self-reflexive, though. It’s only really in this movie-movie play that De Palma overtly winks at the audience; his movie about movies is very serious when it’s minded to be.
Harry: Do you realise how many conspiracy nuts I’ve already had in here today?
So you’re an ear witness to an assassination. That’s good; it’s got a nice ring. I like that.
Travolta wasn’t De Palma’s first choice for the movie, even though he had worked with him before and had intended to work with him again. The director had been attached to Prince of the City, eventually made by Sidney Lumet with Treat Williams (Lumet was no stranger to police corruption pictures, having previously helmed Serpico with Al Pacino. And it was Al Pacino whom De Palma had in mind for Jack). When Al didn’t work out, De Palma reworked the character younger (Travolta was only 27 at the time); this move also allowed for Allen (who had worked with the soon-to-be star on Carrie) to step in. As Allen put it, Jack was originally devised to be more cerebral. The wire recording aspect of Prince of the City made it into Blow Out with the flashback scene where Jack has failed to insulate the tape recorder; the cop is sweating so profusely he causes the battery to short, leading to his death. If Travolta can’t sell the jaded and disillusioned due to his youth, that same factor can explain his not covering all bases. His history also gives the police a disincentive to help him (he “Put a lot of cops away”); he’s accused of being fucking nuts when he protests that all of his tapes have been wiped. Jack is sidelined as a conspiracy freak lacking credibility, but not because there’s a co-ordinated intent to undermine him. When Jack suggests “If they can get away with this…” he is actually wrong (for a change). As Mackey (john Aquino) responds, “Who’s they? A communist conspiracy, couple of ayatollahs with blow guns?” In fact it’s just one man, with a decidedly deranged agenda.
De Palma clearly still had a surveillance itch to scratch (and Blow Out would not sufficiently soothe it). There’s Keith Gordon’s enterprising tech whizz in Dressed to Kill, whose snooping is based loosely on the director’s own experiences, Prince and the City and now Blow Out. The couple walking along the river pretty much shout out loud De Palma’s pecadillos as they ponder, “What is he? A Peeping Tom or something?” The sequence is masterfully composed, meticulously structured with an eye (and ear) towards the jigsaw puzzle-like recompositions later. The big thing here is De Palma’s use of the split diopter, enabling super-close-ups and allowing distant objects to remain in focus in the same wide angle. With this device the entire image is not in focus, as with traditional deep focus; only the two main objects (say, Travolta on the bridge and the owl in the distance) are. The space between them is not. Its use is so frequent and so striking In Blow Out, so vibrant an effect; you wonder why it isn’t used more (certainly, it’s hardly seen these days). The answer may be in the meticulous planning and formal consistency such an approach requires. Everything that occurs here will be a yardstick for Jack to define exactly what happened when he replays the incident; the couple talking, the frog, the car coming in the distance, the owl, the owl screeching, the blow out, the car crashing into the water. There’s a lot of detail required.
De Palma’s camerawork throughout is awesome to behold. I can understand those who complain that the intrusive camera pulls them out of a movie (how would they ever love a Hitchcock film?), but I find this kind of thing a giddy delight. We see the same use of split diopter in Jack’s department early on as he uses his tape machine while a news programme plays on the TV. Later in the hospital there’s a close up of Travolta as he listens to the cop speaking to an aide. There’s a wonderful effects shot as, piecing together the tape we see the blow out in his mind.
Then there’s the blue screen of the firework display as Jack discovers the dead Lucy (achieved with a merry-go-round and a platform). When Jack returns to his studio after Burke (John Lithgow) has erased all his tapes, the camera revolves around the room taking in the invasion; the sense of loss of control, verging on dizziness, is palpable. The director also loves his overhead shots, be it Manny’s assault on Lucy and her retaliation with a bottle, or Burke picking his next victim in a washroom.
Jack: I think your tyre was shot out.
As stunning as the initial recording sequence is, it’s Jack putting it back together that truly impresses. As he listens to the tape, we see the sources of each sound in close up, his replaying of the reel machine in close up, and are granted different perspectives to the ones we saw on the night itself. It’s a wholly expert piece of pure cinema. The method, the concept, the technique, the patience and precision, all in absolute service of the story. And it’s absolutely stunning to watch. The next stage is the assembly of a flip book from the photos Dennis Franz’s scumbag blackmailer Manny Karp has sold to the press (this is Franz’s second appearance in a De Palma film; he’s on the wrong side of the law this time, but there’s something disreputable about him no matter how ostensibly upstanding he’s supposed to be). Vilmos Zsigmond relates how Jack’s dexterity with magazine pictures wouldn’t be possible to achieve in reality, but De Palma’s rendition lacks no credulity. And, when see the light flash from one frame to the next, the visual evidence of the blow out, we are right there with him. So good is this section of the film that Jack getting his hands (thanks to Lucy) on the actual reels isn’t really that important; the exciting part is solving the mystery.
Jack’s decision to wire Sally (“I’m gonna wire you I’m gonna cover all the bases no ones going to fuck me this time”) isn’t based on anything substantial and so feels rather flimsy. As far as he knows his concerns are based only on Frank Donahue’s (Curt May) news reporter not getting back to him; it’s essential to the plot that he shouldn’t be suspicious of whoever broke into his lab, and that he shouldn’t believe there’s any real danger (or he wouldn’t put Sally in harm’s way).
The mad dash rescue attempt is a play on classic themes (it’s riffed on in The Player’s joke Bruce Willis movie Habeas Corpus) in which success is undercut, but this last section of the movie finds De Palma at a loss over what to do next. One might view it as a further part of the deconstruction of the conspiracy theme, that it should be solved and order restored (except that conspiracy movies rarely end on an upbeat note). If he’s intending for it to be a commentary of some kind, it flounders in that it can’t compete with the subject matter of the previous two-thirds. The “braininess” peters out, and neither the arch qualities (Lithgow’s hit man is a tad straighter by this point) nor the narrative satisfy. There are some good ideas here; Jack’s impotent voyeurism as the means to solve the case is yet again turned against him, the use of the Liberty Bell parade, foreshadowed since virtually the first scene, and the threat “Jack’s gonna kill you” borne out when Burke succumbs in a fashion as frenzied as his own slayings.
But crucially, if there was an intention to rely on the emotional connection, and the sad loss of Sally, De Palma fails to convey it. We get that Jack feels guilty; after all, he’s used her. But we don’t really care about Sally herself. In combination De Palma (as writer) and Allen (in the choices she makes playing Sally) have rendered her a ditzy little girl woman with panda make-up eyes. There’s almost a dare to find anything to empathise with here.
Perhaps it represented an opportunity to be as different to Dressed to Kill as possible, in which Allen essayed a smart-as-they-come high class hooker. So to be as different as possible playing a variation on a theme. After all, De Palma isn’t exactly breaking the mould by sketching yet another female protagonist who makes a living from sexual dalliances with men (of one sort or another). In the Blu ray extras, Allen self-effacedly cites a reviewer who cogently surmised of Sally “Every time she opens her mouth it takes you a full minute to recover”. Allen referred to it as a “rag doll voice” and tellingly when she showed up on set with it she was met with “Are you really going to use that?”
But isn’t just the voice. Sally’s as dumb as they come. She knows how to fix a face (“This took me two hours, and this is no make up” she sagely informs Jack) but she “sure as hell can’t type”. The fate of McRyan means nothing to her (“I don’t watch the news”). She’s an airhead with enough sense not to tell Jack what she and Manny were up to, but not enough to sense danger when it’s looming behind her. There’s no reason for us or Jack to really like her; pity her perhaps. Jack manipulates her, feigning interest but really delaying her train because he wants the full story (if he’d let her go, and she was given money to disappear, she’d have lived not to tell). And when he discovers she’s been scheming he drops the façade (“You got nice tits who’s paying you to flash them for McRyan?”)
I have to side with De Palma and Travolta against Allen and editor Paul Hirsch, who insisted, “You cannot kill this girl”. They felt Travolta should have cared for her but to do that would necessitate fundamentally changing the character. To the extent that Sally is annoying rather than sympathetic, and the third act rescue lacks an emotional bond, that wouldn’t have been a bad idea (you could still have Jack’s manipulation and failure) but there’d be no believability in attempting to show Jack genuinely caring for Sally as she is portrayed and no real spark if he had; he’d be a white knight who gallops off again as soon as the credits roll because he doesn’t really care for his damsel in distress.
One thing about Blow Out’s locations, it may be set in Philadelphia but the emphasis on seediness and grime recalls a movie featuring a character named Travis Bickle made five years earlier. The prettiest part of the movie is punctured by the story-starting accident. Not that De Palma doesn’t make every frame striking (there’s a pull back shot at the railway station, revealing steam and carriages, that’s phenomenal, and it’s almost absent-mindedly just “there”). But the imminent threat of Taxi Driver is absent. The menace here is borderline tongue-in-cheek, certainly running with the fictional killer motif of the opening movie reel.
Burke: I’ve decided to terminate her and make it look like a series of sex killings in the area.
No discussion of Blow Out can leave out John Lithgow’s Burke, rogue psychopath, whose veneer of calm fails to disguise the fact that he may as well be the star of the slasher movies De Palma is homaging in the first scene. Burke doesn’t appear until 45 minutes into the movie, but any failings in the latter half are nothing to do with Lithgow. Nor indeed the character of Burke, who is uproariously entertaining whenever he’s on screen. The only real threat in the film is a crazed pyscho who adopts as his modus operandi the kind of excessive behaviour only found in the slasher movies of the period. It’s an extra layer of commentary from De Palma. Is the lone gunman very far from a knife-wielding maniac?
Burke: It’s Burke sir.
Boss: Burke? What have you done? Are you crazy? You were just supposed to get some pictures.
Burke: Are you aware what you’re saying?
Boss: You were supposed to get some pictures of McRyan not kill him.
Burke: I understood the objectives of the operation, and I never concurred, but I didn’t kill him. It was an accident.
The first time we see him, Burke is attacking one of his victims and, as with your classic horror monster, he’s breathing heavily as he does so. Later, his casual conversation with his unseen employer finds Burke dropping the titbit that he’s covering his plan to kill Sally by laying the groundwork with “a series of sex killings in the area”. It’s such an inspired, grotesquely unhinged, bit of overkill (if you will), attempting to hide your murder by enacting a deplorable headline-grabbing spree.
Given Burke’s graphic account of his activities, De Palma is actually relatively restrained in what he shows, certainly in comparison to the killer-on-the loose movies that surround Blow Out; Dressed to Kill and Body Double (and Scarface might be included in that assembly). When he later takes a victim in the station washroom, De Palma shoots the kicking feet under the cubicle door. It’s enough to know that Burke’s creative killing methods (with a screwdriver) entail “stab marks were in the pattern of the liberty bell”, which is just the kind of crazy-town thing that would form the basis for one of Jack’s Bloodbath movies.
Kael’s contention that De Palma is taking this movie seriously is less and less convincing the more you hear from Burke. His cool efficiency is only matched by how deranged he is; he could have mopped up all the loose ends and no one would have been any the wiser had he not indulged his passion for the florid. His mock-sobbing confession “She made me do it” down the phone, disguised in a builder’s helmet, is the pièce de résistance; the director has pretty much taken apart the entire genre, and it hadn’t even peaked yet. His blithe analysis that, once he has despatched the girl, “This would completely secure our operation” is met with horror by his dumbfounded employer. Frankly you want to see more of Burke, what with his failing to see why his boss is so put out. After all, the “Objective was achieved. He was eliminated from the election”. When he smoothly poses as the newsman at the end, it’s a disappointment to see him exit in such perfunctory manner. It’s easy to see why Lithgow would have a sideline in crazies during the decades to come, from Ricochet to De Palma’s own Raising Cain to the best season of Dexter. This might be his most amusingly deadpan pyscho killer, though.
Sam: Now that’s a scream.
Jack: It’s a good scream.
So the final scenes, showing Jack sitting in the snow replaying and haunted by the recording he has made, do work in terms of the punishment he is inflicting on himself. They might have even more impact if he’d really cared for Sally and had still been responsible. As it is, it’s a kind of hollow sick joke that he uses her death scream as the perfect sound effect for his cheap slasher pic. She didn’t matter and she doesn’t matter. It’s also a choice that references the discussions of the possible existence of snuff movies during that era (and the Zapruder film is, after all, the ultimate snuff movie). Jack using it is an acknowledgement of his own guilt. In his mind he is that low a human being; he deserves to be the kind of person who would make profit from her death, so he sentences himself to knowing forever that he was responsible for debasing her memory in this way. It’s extraordinarily bleak. As a final tip of the hat to total failure, we learn that the cover story has survived intact. Jack remained silent (“Final victim killed her attacker in bloody struggle”).
Is there a more abiding message in here, relating to the abundant use of the colours of the American flag throughout, including the flag itself at the climactic murder? The Liberty Bell, a symbol of independence, is cynically appropriated by Burke (Liberty Bell Strangler Strikes), and it is the celebration of the same that does for Jack’s attempt to save Sally. Patriotism stinks? Corruption doesn’t need to be fed by conspiracy? It’s all empty anyway; Jack attempts to unearth the truth at all costs, gets someone killed and helps no one. He fails to redeem himself for perceived past mistakes, only compounds them. And presumably he doesn’t even find out whom Burke was working for. It’s a sour, bitter end note. Very much a post-‘70s movie, rather than an ‘80s one (a mere five years later, and you’d be hard-pressed to find De Palma in more upbeat and salutary mode in The Untouchables).
There’s a reason few of De Palma’s film are seen as more than cult classics, certainly in comparison to his biggest stylistic influence Hitchcock. And that’s a lack of classiness. I mean in terms of sensibility, rather than technique. As Hitch did later in his career, De Palma likes to revel in the sordid and fecund. Blow Out seems him half attempting a straight thriller, half attempting the ultimate movie-movie and half further indulging his own unwholesome pursuits. But you know that, whatever his failings in the script department, this is him at his creative peak from the very moment the sound dial swings back and forth on the opening titles and we hear a crucial snatch of sound as it does so.
This is a bravura piece of work, right up to the point where it can’t possibly compete with itself any more. As a writer, De Palma is both his own best friend and worst enemy. He can dictate the scenarios that bring forth the most astonishing, eye-catching set pieces imaginable. But he can also fall back on predictable indulgences and obsessions. It’s one of the reasons I think his best few films tend to be more towards the status of director for hire, or at least more directly with a commercial bent in mind; the result is a balance of both worlds.
There probably hasn’t been a piece of filmmaking deconstruction as clever as the first half of Blow Out before or since, so it’s a shame the final section can’t live up to it. De Palma’s nevertheless produced something almost wilfully nihilistic; at least with the doom-laden conspiracy thrillers there was a sense of meaning behind the acts of the all-powerful (however nefarious). Now we learn there’s nothing there at all. Perhaps that’s a foreshadowing of the shameless me-ness of the decade to come. Mask the emptiness with greed.
Both director and star would be required to turn to more flagrantly populist fare to pay the rent in the coming years. Travolta would have a last brush with success by returning to pastures old (Staying Alive) before his first second wind in a Bruce Willis movie at the end of the decade. The real one would be with that Tarantino fella, though. As for De Palma, he’d endure a few more slings and arrows, including now his most fêted movie (Scarface), before discovering a rarified atmosphere of both critical and commercial plaudits with The Untouchables. After Blow Out his returns to voyeuristic activities felt increasingly as if he was homaging himself rather than others but, no matter how disappointing, its impossible to see one of his films and not come away with scenes to savour lodged in the mind. Blow Out has an abundance of them, which is probably why it remains his most highly-praised “unseen” movie.