BRian De Palma’s best movie, Blow Out, opens with a scene from a movie within a movie, a Z-level slasher scam called Co-ed Frenzy, from the director of films as esteemed as Blood Bath and Blood Bath 2 , Bad day at Blood Beach and Bordello of Blood. Camera work mimics black Christmas and Halloween killer POV shots, peering through the windows of a sex-crazed sorority house before hiding inside, where the action alternates between T&A and stabbing. It finally ends with the umpteenth raw variation on the shower scene in Psycho, and the punchline that comes out of the film: the actor has a terrible cry.
Blow Out is about the sound engineer, Jack Terry (John Travolta), who finds a better cry. It’s also about the movies and how easily the truth can be manipulated or obscured. Beyond that, it’s about what America has become after a decade of losing trust in government to Vietnam and Watergate, and how the plots of the powerful could crush the ordinary citizens who stood in their way. Here is De Palma at the peak of his talent, making a politically charged and emotionally opera film, with great technique, visual wit and an arsenal of underhand references to other films and historical events. It’s so multi-layered, but De Palma can feel like a magician’s sleight of hand.
Watch this opening sequence again. At this point in his career, De Palma could convince people that this was not a movie within a movie at all, but another chilling streak from a director whose Hitchcockian thrillers were full of voyeurism. and haughty exploitation. After all, De Palma had already opened a movie with a dolly through a girls’ locker room in Carrie and he had already done a softcore tribute to Psycho in Dressed to Kill, which had Angie Dickinson foaming as we anticipate his early release. De Palma pulling out of the fake movie with that horrific scream is not just a terrific joke, but an introduction to the deconstructive deception of the rest of the film. We will have to question everything we see and hear.
Despite garnering some of the best reviews of De Palma’s career, Blow Out fell apart on release 40 years ago, likely because audiences found the ending too desperate. Who would guess that juxtaposing the bicentennial celebration with murder and cover-up would not be commercially valid? But the film has lost none of its power over the years, as we sank deeper and deeper into media manipulation, conspiracy thinking, and greater opacity among the ruling elite and their ultra patrons. -rich. What is, say, Jeffrey Epstein’s prison suicide if not a Brian De Palma movie waiting to happen?
True to form, De Palma used films from the past as the building blocks to build Blow Out, most directly Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 thriller about a fashion photographer who believes he captured a murder during a shoot, and Francis Ford Coppola The Conversation, itself a play on Blow-Up, is only about a surveillance expert who believes he has filmed a murderous political conspiracy. What De Palma did when designing his film was a simple math: Blow-Up + The Conversation = Blow Out. Or, in other words, Image + Sound = Film.
The sound part comes first. The director of Co-ed Frenzy sends Jack to search for new sound effects. So he goes to a park in Philadelphia at night with his microphone wand to get authentic wind noises, etc. He so happens to have the recorder turned on when an incident similar to Chappaquiddick’s occurs in the distance, with a car coming out of a bridge and into the water of the stream below. Jack saves the young woman inside, Sally (Nancy Allen), and accompanies her to the hospital, where he learns that the driver of the car is a popular governor who could be the next president. One of the governor’s assistants takes him aside: would it bother him, for the sake of the deceased’s wife and family, to be silent about Sally’s presence in the car?
The image part comes next. By a crazy coincidence, a sleazy photographer (Dennis Frantz) was also in the park and filmed the incident, which he then sold to a tabloid, which prints the frames frame by frame. Only this is no coincidence: the photographer and Sally rocked rich doubles by putting them in a compromising position and asking them for money in exchange for the pictures. Meanwhile, Jack does something like a full-sounding Zapruder movie by synchronizing his recording with the printed footage, confirming his suspicion that the car’s tire was pulled before he left the bridge. He and Sally now have knowledge that is too dangerous for them.
From there, Blow Out takes the basic form of the classic ’70s political thriller, like The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor, but De Palma gives the film a flowery grandeur that is far from the icy paranoia of those films. previous ones. Travolta and Allen are fully invested in characters who develop a romantic bond under duress. So when the stakes get high and the danger mounts, De Palma’s iconic sets have a real emotional flavor on top of the heightened suspense. The ending seems especially harsh because we are so invested in the survival of Jack and Sally, with the faint hope that justice against the powerful will be possible in America.
Jack gets his cry at the end, but it’s a final, bitter irony that only he knows the source of. The sound and footage that Jack once gathered to reveal the shocking truth about a supposed crash are now gone, and the most gruesome moment of his life is now ADR for fictitious waste. As a film about filmmaking, Blow Out not only draws the curtain on how filmmaking works, but challenges audiences to question the reality of a medium based on optical illusion. . Believe it or not, there are creators of images more sinister than Brian De Palma.