Sound man Jack Terry (John Travolta) is out near a bridge recording wind sounds for a slasher film when he sees a car spin out of control and careen into the river. Dropping his equipment, Jack dives into the water and rescues passenger Sally (Nancy Allen); the male driver of the car is already dead. At the hospital, Jack learns the driver was a married governor on his way to the presidency; when the governor’s aide asks Jack to keep Sally’s presence quiet, Jack reluctantly agrees. When he reviews his tapes, however, he becomes convinced the politician’s death was no accident: right before the sound of the tire blowing out is the sound of a gunshot. The more Jack learns about the circumstances of the accident, the more he becomes convinced of a conspiracy, and with assistance from Sally — with whom he begins to fall in love, Jack embarks on a mission to expose the truth.
Thus begins one of the most ambitious, original, and complex American thrillers of all time, Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. Largely ignored upon its release (though not by astute critics such as Pauline Kael, who even then recognized its genius), Blow Out has only improved with age; the audacity of both its style and its content is even more impressive in today’s conservative filmmaking climate than it was in 1981, when Blow Out followed Raging Bull as one of the last gasps of 1970s cinema iconoclasm. In it, De Palma takes all of the themes and techniques he had been fine-tuning throughout his career and consolidates them with greater purpose and seriousness than before: voyeurism and surveillance, doomed romance and political conspiracy coexist with the director’s familiar split screens, long takes and overhead compositions in a sort of textbook summary of De Palma motifs. Yet there is nothing academic about De Palma’s visceral masterpiece; it is as personal and obsessive as Vertigo, but with an added historical context that makes it even more powerful.
To bring his art to its peak, De Palma depended on a number of trusted collaborators on this project: actors Travolta, Allen, Dennis Franz (Manny Karp) and John Lithgow (Burke), editor Paul Hirsch, composer Pino Donaggio and producer Paul Litto were all veterans of previous De Palma projects. The movie also marked the second partnership between De Palma and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, following their work on Obsession. They would work together again on Bonfire of the Vanities and The Black Dahlia, and all of their pictures together are characterized by an astonishing visual density. The opening credits sequence for Blow Out, for example, provides a massive amount of exposition, thanks to the economy of De Palma’s writing and the full use of the anamorphic ratio. An attentive viewer will pick up dozens of details that are significant in the murder mystery to follow. Right from the start, Zsigmond frequently relies on split screens and split diopters to force the audience to pay attention to the entire frame; few American genre movies require the spectator to work as hard to keep up, but the rewards are ample for those willing to rise to the Zsigmond and De Palma challenge.
De Palma’s detractors have often accused him of being a stylist with no substance, but a close study of the camera pyrotechnics in Blow Out demolish this argument pretty quickly — it is a gorgeous, dynamic film, but one in which every split screen and long take serves a dramatic purpose. In the movie’s most bravura visual flourish, Zsigmond’s camera follows Jack around his vandalized office in a continuous, 360-degree movement for two minutes as he frantically tries to recover his materials. The shot is a technical marvel that must have taken immense planning and dexterity on the part of Zsigmond’s crew, yet it is not just a case of the filmmakers showing off. The circular structure of the shot reflects the circular nature of Jack’s quest, in which he discovers the utter uselessness of his fight against the system, He is constantly spinning his wheels, a notion expressed in the movie’s recurring shots of sound and film reels spinning in place. The circle is the defining visual principle of Blow Out, from the garrote Burke uses to strangle his victims to the chilling finale that brings the audience back to the opening shot, and it points the way toward what would become one of De Palma’s chief preoccupations in later films.
Time and time again, from Body Double and Casualties of War to The Black Dahlia and Redacted, De Palma returns to impotent “heroes” who can do nothing to alter a hostile world, men who are in constant motion, yet get nowhere, and are unable to save women they care about. While Body Double and Dahlia are feverish explorations of this theme on a personal, romantic level, in Casualties and Redacted, the struggle takes on larger political dimensions, questioning the sanity of our involvement in Vietnam and Iraq. Blow Out does both: it is both the most tragic and most touching love story De Palma ever created, and it is a pitch-perfect snapshot of America in the grip of a Watergate hangover. The movie’s accumulation of references to then-recent history (the Kennedy assassination and subsequent Zapruder film, Chappaquiddick, etc.) paralyzes the viewer with the same kind of hopeless despair that smothers Jack by the end of the film; it is the same kind of despair expressed in previous conspiracy thrillers such as The Conversation and The Parallax View, but with more heat and directness. Zsigmond’s constantly tracking camera and the abundance of deep-focus shots draw the audience right into Jack’s consciousness and demolish the distancing effects of a cool, detached work like Parallax.
With its summation of De Palma’s previous work and foreshadowing of fixations to come, Blow Out can now be seen as a pivotal point in the director’s career, a perfection of all he had been working toward and the opening of new inquiries and new directions. It is also, among the De Palma and Zsigmond collaborations, the film in which Zsigmond most tests the limits of his film stocks; it is a movie filled with rich blacks and deep reds, many of which seem to blur together in a hazy smear on previous video releases. The Criterion Blu-ray gets the palette just right, particularly in the film’s many night exteriors. Zsigmond and De Palma favor wide shots with a great deal of action in all corners of the composition, and this new transfer restores the detail to Zsigmond’s dark, but precise and layered frames. The newly restored stereo mix is an equally strong improvement over earlier DVD and Laserdisc pressings, and the superior clarity and separation reveal a number of nuances in Blow Out’s sound design that place the viewer even more firmly in Jack’s psyche and point of view.
The disc contains three outstanding interview pieces that illuminate Blow Out from a variety of technical, performance and thematic perspectives. First, is an hour-long conversation between director Noah Baumbach and De Palma in which Baumbach investigates the film’s production history, visual style and continuity with the rest of De Palma’s oeuvre. (Among the nifty revelations: when several rolls of negative were stolen and Zsigmond had moved on to another project, De Palma reshot several major sequences with Laszlo Kovacs, ASC, behind the camera.) Further insights into De Palma’s process with actors can be found in a 25-minute interview with Allen, who discusses the collaboration between her, De Palma, and Travolta, all of whom had previously done fine work together on Carrie. Finally, there is a terrific 15-minute interview with Steadicam creator Garrett Brown, ASC, who gives a quick tutorial on his invention, followed by a look at Blow Out’s witty opening shot, a three-minute parody of the prologue to John Carpenter’s Halloween. A gallery of stills and a trailer complete the supplementary section.
The Blu-ray also includes a second feature film, De Palma’s 1967 thriller Murder a la Mod, photographed by Bruce Torbet. This low-budget story of a murder seen from multiple points of view contains many of the themes and techniques that would obsess De Palma for decades: a concern with voyeurism and the manipulation of images; a structure in which the same event is presented multiple times, its meaning changing with each subsequent viewing, and a provocative intersection of sex and gory violence. It makes a great companion piece to Blow Out — watching the two films back-to-back, one can see a filmmaker developing his ideas in an embryonic, experimental form and then returning to those ideas with a full command of the medium. Both movies are essential viewing for De Palma fans, and they have never looked or sounded better than on Criterion’s director-approved transfers.