Blow Out (1981)
written and directed by Brian De Palma
Blow Out begins with an opening stolen directly from two horror classics, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 shocker Psycho and John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher Halloween. We see the point-of-view shot of a killer stalking young girls at a dorm, taking out a knife, and approaching a would-be victim taking a shower. As the woman screams, unconvincingly, writer/director Brian De Palma cuts to the incredulous reactions of a producer and his soundman: The prologue we just watched is really the movie they are making, a low-budget exploitation pic called Coed Frenzy. And boy, that scream is terrible.
The rest of Blow Out is a distinct homage to two more films, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1978, itself also inspired by Blowup). The main character is Jack Terry (John Travolta), the audio engineer from the intro, who goes out to work one night and unwittingly records the killing of an influential governor when his car tire is blown out with a bullet. Armed with potential evidence, Terry joins forces with Sally (Nancy Allen), a young ingénue caught in the fallout of the crime, to uncover the conspiracy. Of course, he falls for her. And of course, there’s a nasty killer who wants them both out of the picture.
Blow Out is not interested in realism in the same way that, say, The Conversation does. It’s first and foremost a genre thriller, and as such, there are some leaps and bounds that don’t make perfect sense. It’s also short on character development. Aside from Travolta, giving one of his most compelling performances as a man haunted by an event from his past, the rest of the cast doesn’t have much to work with (Allen is one-note in her sweet but grating naiveté; you know Dennis Franz’ private eye is a sleazeball because he wears a stained tank top and ogles Allen slimily).
But as usual with De Palma, there’s enough style to offset the shortcomings (check out 2016’s documentary on the filmmaker, De Palma). Indeed, Blow Out is one of his best efforts. It’s beautifully shot by Vilmos Zsigmond – check out those fireworks reflecting on the characters’ faces – and edited by Paul Hirsch in perfect rhythm with De Palma’s fondness for split screen and split diopter shots. Pino Donaggio’s achingly beautiful theme for Jack and Sally is probably one of my all-time favs in movie scoring. And of course, there’s that ending. The killer (John Lithgow) passes himself off for a talk-show host and convinces Sally to meet him. But Jack has wired Sally, and he realizes she’s about to get murdered. He dashes across the city, through a parade, trying to save Sally before it’s too late, all the while listening to her getting killed. It’s a harrowing, heartbreaking sequence, and no matter how many times I watch it, I always hope it’ll turn out differently.
And yet, De Palma has one final truly twisted coda for us. He loops back to the beginning, and in the final moments, we see that Jack has dubbed Sally’s real dying scream onto Coed Frenzy‘s infamous shower scene. As he cries, we see a man driven mad with guilt, immortalizing his self-loathing on a piece of celluloid that condemns him to hear Sally’s agony for the rest of his life. For Jack – and De Palma – art imitates life and then becomes art again… in the most disturbing of ways.
Carlos I. Cuevas