Blow Outrecommended viewing

If it's all been working up to that point...
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1981
Director: 
Brian De Palma
Starring: 
John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz
The Setup: 
Sound guy records an accident that may have been a murder.
Discussion: 

So I was halfway through watching Private Parts, but I wanted something a little more meaty, and I started to think “Ooooh, I would SO enjoy watching Blow Out right now.” So I did. It’s so wonderful to have a favorite prolific director and keep several of his movies on hand, so one can pull one out when one is in the exact right mood.

The movie opens in this stalker film, with a killer’s POV shot as he wanders around peering in the windows of a sorority house or something. The house is a hotbed of sex, with sensuous women in all states of undress doing various illicit things. He goes in the house, completely unnoticed although he’s obviously standing plainly in the girls’ view, until he heads into the bathroom where a girl is taking a shower. Do I need to tell you that this has conscious echoes of Psycho? I didn’t think so. So the knife is raised and he pulls back the curtain, but the victim’s scream is so lame and wailing it kills the tension. We then see that we are in a grindhouse movie production company, with John Travolta as sound man Jack Terry and his producer discussing how they’re going to get a good scream to dub over this bit. But you know, what balls to let viewers think that they’ve wandered into the cheesiest slasher movie imaginable, then pull out to reveal that it’s just a movie within the movie. This is classic De Palma, a trick similar to the one he opens Body Double with.

After a short discussion about the scream we have a short credit sequence, showing a noise level needle moving back and forth. You may notice that the sound of a scream is heard when Nancy Allen’s name appears on screen—not by accident. There is then a cool graphic of the title that end credits reveal was done by R/GA, where I used to work! But this was back when they did graphics and special effects [they also did the special effects for Xanadu!], before they get into making websites, which was when I worked there.

So Jack is at home working and hanging out with the TV on. We find out via TV news that everyone hates the current president, and Governor McRyan is a virtual shoo-in to become the next president. We see this during a split-screen sequence with the news on the right and Jack on the other. One bit of extreme De Palma cleverness is the way he cuts from the split screen to a room divided precisely at the split, so that it looks like the split-screen effect is continued, until the camera pans over and you realize that we’re just in the room now. It’s small and doesn’t serve the story, but it just keeps attentive viewers interested and gooses the film’s visual excitement. Oh by the way, you will notice that we hear a gunshot and Jack writes the word ‘shot’ as McRyan, who is about to be shot, appears on screen.

So Jack goes out to a wooded area one night to record some nature sounds. There follows some nice showy technique to evoke the many sounds he is recording. Then he hears a car coming, turns his mic that way, and records it as the tire blows out and it plunges off the bridge into the river! Note the build-up from the serene nature sounds, the rising energy of the car, and then the sudden burst into action after the car falls and Jack runs to help.

He dives into the river to save anyone in the car. If you watch carefully, you can see someone sneak out from under the bridge and run off. Jack dives in and sees that there is a woman still alive inside the car. There is also a man, who is bleeding all over the place. After a struggle, he is able to get the woman out and drag her to land.

He is next being questioned in the police station, where he insists that he heard two sounds—a bang and then the blowout. Naturally the police don’t listen, and soon a menacing guy comes in and suggests that Jack forget that there was ever a woman in that car.

SPOILERS > > >
So he goes to meet the woman in the hospital. She is Sally, played by Nancy Allen, and she appears to be quite dazed from the accident—until the next day, when you realize that she really is quite a simpleton. They go to a hotel, where she sleeps while Jack listens to the tape. He slows it down until it is clear that there are two sounds. Now, this movie is obviously reminiscent in many ways, least of all the title, to Blowup [and also to The Conversation], in which a man photographs a murder and then tries to blow up his footage until it becomes clear that he is correct. There is a crucial difference here, however, in that we are told quite explicitly not too far in that there was in fact two noises, whereas in Blowup a lot of tension is generated by not being sure if there really was a murder at all. Sally wakes up and talks to Jack—one can admire the simple casualness of their lifelike dialogue—and listens to the tape, but doesn’t hear anything. She takes off.

Jack soon learns via the news that there was a guy that claims to have a movie of the accident. In a strange movie, he sells the film to a magazine, which prints virtually every frame across several pages, rather than just selling it to television, which could just show it as a film. It is an odd contrivance, and I expect it happens almost entirely so De Palma could assemble the next sequence.

Jack takes the magazine, makes copies of every single frame, and makes a movie out of it. He then syncs his sound to it, and upon doing so one notices a puff of smoke from the embankment, as if from a gunshot, moments before the car goes over the bridge. So, why the whole thing with the magazine? It's to allude to the Kennedy assassination and the fact that the film of that first appeared in a magazine, but I believe this is a contrivance that De Palma asks us to play along with so he can show a larger point: that movies are just a sequence of still photos that are put together and synched with sound in order to create the illusion of capturing reality. This is just my theory, but it is in line with his recurring theme of the mechanics or moviemaking and the illusions of the movies.

So now Travolta has a film of the accident with sound that clearly proves that there was a gunshot. He makes a number of copies, and hides the original. He takes it to the police, but they don’t want to see it. He calls Sally, and they meet up and bond. Turns out she aspires to be a movie makeup artist [i.e. they’re both all about the illusions of the movies], and supposedly took TWO HOURS to do her makeup that very day [who has that kind of time?]. She then takes off, and we learn that she knows Manny, played by Dennis Franz, the guy who shot the movie of the accident!

Then we meet John Lithgow as Burke. This is after we see Nancy walking around in these SASSY boots, and suddenly Burke grabs her—but it’s not her, it’s a woman that looks vaguely like her, and they struggle and roll downhill into this construction site, where he kills her. There follows a little homage a Frenzy as the camera tracks back onto the street, where the woman’s screams are being drowned out by the cheerful foot traffic who have no idea what terrible thing is happening just a few feet away.

So it’s like this: Sally was in cahoots with Manny to seduce McRyan so Manny could take incriminating photos of him and get him out of the race. Burke is a ROGUE AGENT, kicked out of the secret service or whatnot and now he’s completing his own psycho mission, part of which was to shoot out McRyan’s tires and try to kill him. The other part is to make appear as though there's a rash of unexplained sex killings in the area, thus the women killed. So there’s no real conspiracy [well there is, but it’s not the main driver], there’s just this one madman. Meanwhile, Sally finds out that Manny is making $3,000 he wasn’t going to tell her about, and Jack is being contacted by Frank Donahue, this reporter who wants to blow the lid off this whole thing. Donahue definitely feels too smooth to be trusted.

But wait! Burke is on to Jack, and Jack returns home to find that all of his tapes of the accident have been erased, necessitating multiple 360-degree pans as the soundtrack is filled with numerous layers of the sound of erased audio. Burke didn’t get the one hidden in the ceiling, but now that’s his only copy.

Now’s where trouble starts. Burke cuts Jack’s incoming calls so Donahue can’t reach him, then calls Sally pretending to be Donahue, and arranges for her to meet him at 30th street station [Did I mention we’re in Philadelphia? And De Palma makes it look gorgeous?] with the tape. So for some reason Jack agrees to let Sally go in alone, she who has never seen Donahue. But since he’s a little suspicious [when he should be a LOT suspicious] he puts a wire on her so he can hear what’s happening. We have already been tipped off to a traumatic event in Jack’s past where he wired a potential mob witness who ended up getting killed because Jack’s wiring wasn’t as thorough as it could have been. So he sends her in, and we are treated to some wonderful suspense shots of the interior of the station. Watch for the troupe of school kids all wearing red that wind through the crowd as Sally walks in.

So she meets Burke, pretending to be Donahue, and he wants to take her someplace where he can kill her. They go downstairs into the subway and way, way back to a dark, dangerous-looking deserted end of the platform, Sally chattering cheerfully away, and by this time one’s viewing experience may be interrupted by one’s own calls of “Oh come ON!” Because Sally may be a simple soul, but she’s not THAT stupid. Meanwhile Jack is listening to it all, but starts to lose the signal once they’re in the subway. All of this then necessitates a chase through a parade [it’s some patriotic holiday] to some plaza where a celebration is taking place. Night has abruptly fallen.

Then for a second Jack can make out where Sally is, and we have a nice slo-mo running scene as he tries to reach her in time, but alas, she’s killed, after a classic De Palma shot of her screaming out against a huge American flag. Jack runs up and kills Burke, but it’s too late for Sally. Travolta whips out some truly excellent acting for his reaction shot to Sally’s death, you can see all sorts of emotion passing over his face, mostly seeming like he’s trying to put a brave face on it, trying to tell himself there’s something not absolutely awful about it, and one can watch him trying to keep his anguish at bay. Then follows a shot that is very much in the operatic De Palma tradition, but for me was a little too over-the-top and took me right out of the movie: Jack cradles Sally’s body as the camera whirls around them and the sky explodes with fireworks. Maybe this really works for some people, but I thought it was a shame to follow Travolta’s wonderful reaction shot with all its complex emotion with something that is obviously so contrived.

Then there is a short coda in which we see that Jack has used Sally’s real death scream as the scream for the horror movie, and that he is the broken shell of a man. The end.
< < < SPOILERS END

I know there are many people for whom this is their very favorite De Palma movie, but for me it’s one of the more frustrating, due to its high ratio of potential brilliance to thrill-deflating contrivance. As I said, at the beginning I was starting to think that this may be one of the most clever De Palma movies ever, with the split-screen trick I described and some very clever telegraphic storytelling and a fantastic setup… but a lot of it gets lost as the contrivances toward the end strain credibility beyond the breaking point, and the magic ends.

Have you ever heard the anecdote about Spielberg making Jaws, when he decided that he was going to blow up the shark at the end, and the screenwriter said “That’s ridiculous, no one we believe that!” and Speilberg responded “If they’ve been with us up to this point, they’ll buy anything in the final minutes?” And of course he was right. But the operative part is “if they’ve been with us to this point,” which is what falls out during the course of Blow Out. De Palma allows questions to creep in, which can distance viewers from the movie and that distance can keep one from letting him have his way during some of the more extravagant sequences that require whole-hog acceptance. The first big problem is the issue of why the film doesn’t appear on TV. It just doesn’t make sense, and when it turns out that it’s so Jack can piece the film back together it smacks so hard of contrivance that one no longer WANTS to play along. Things go reasonably well until the end, when Jack suddenly loses his sense and lets Sally go in to meet Burke-as-Donahue alone, which just flat-out doesn’t make sense. Not least because Jack has been getting ever-more canny and untrusting as the film has gone on, not to mention all the shadiness involving cut phone lines that immediately preceded it. So the whole idea that Jack suddenly turns incredibly stupid is a big distancing factor.

Speaking of incredibly stupid, there’s the matter of Sally. Now, I am all for seeing SOME women in movies be unintelligent [not because I think women are unintelligent, but because there are some out there, and all women in recent movies have to be brilliant, intelligent, sassy independent women], but come on, very few people are THAT dumb. And someone who looks like and travels in the circles Sally does probably has more than a little experience putting off horny men, and she IS aware that she’s at the center of a dangerous conspiracy, so I really don’t think she’s going to happily wander down to the very deserted, dangerous-looking end of a subway line with a man she’s never met, chattering mindlessly the whole way. A regular CdM pen pal from the first days of this site called out this movie, especially the use of the scream at the end, as evidence of De Palma’s misogyny. I was all defensive about this, but having closely watched the movie now, I kind of have to agree. Not so much because of the scream—I think that’s just evidence of how broken Jack is at the end and how nothing has meaning for him anymore—but because Sally is just SUCH A BIMBO. She’s a whiny idiot from the start and is nothing more than a pawn of men throughout, to the point where it starts to feel a bit unfair and, well, misogynistic. There are also no balancing female characters, and the only other notable woman is the one Burke kills in the construction site. Oh, and let’s not forget the prostitute that blows various dudes in the phone booth in the train station. Yep.

The contrivances hit meltdown point by the end, after Jack has been so stupid as to let Sally go off with Burke, etc., so that by the time we get to the operatic fireworks shot, one is NOT inclined to play along. So one watches the fireworks shot with an attitude of “Oh, I can see how he built up to have this big, supposed-to-be-effective shot at the end,” rather than truly being swept away and involved in it.

Part of this happens, I think, because this story is supposed to remain grounded in reality. Other De Palma movies, like Femme Fatale or Raising Cain, exist in a sort of cinematic fantasy world where it’s apparent that the stylistic skill of the director IS the movie, and any gestures toward plot are just framework to hang directorial showstoppers on. This movie attempts to be more grounded in the real world, with real characters and real government, so the areas that are obviously just there to make a cinematic point seem more jarring than they might have otherwise.

But all of this is to say that this one may be less successful for a De Palma movie, which would still leave it more interesting than most movies out there. And I think part of the reason it’s disappointing to me is based on the promise it shows at the beginning, and the rich idea of the setup. So if it all only came to a 7 instead of a 10, that’s still better than the frankly alarming number of 5’s and 3’s out there.

Should you watch it: 

If you want to see a decent movie, or if you’re into De Palma.