Blow Out

As reviewed on

Set for a DVD/Blu-ray release Tuesday, April 26, Blow Out, the 1981 film directed by Brian De Palma and starring John Travolta, is a spellbinding motion picture, one of the great filmmaker’s best.

While the 1970s produced an array of superior American political thrillers, De Palma kept the spirit alive for a few years after with this taut picture featuring Travolta as Jack, a movie sound effects man specializing in B-grade horror films, a sampling of which opens the picture in signature De Palma style. Out recording nature sounds one night, Jack quite accidentally “witnesses” a car accident in which a major political figure, a potential presidential candidate, drowns. The candidate’s accompanying girl-for-hire (Nancy Allen) is rescued by Jack after he dives into the water.

As the film progresses and De Palma unspools the threads of this conspiracy puzzler, Jack attempts to unravel the mysteries surrounding the events that have transpired. Combining the audio he recorded with photos taken by another party, Jack laboriously and imaginatively attempts to reconstruct what actually happened by creating a sort of flip-book with sound – itself not unlike a motion picture. This sequence is all crafted and shown in a dazzling tour-de-force of directorial flair, Travolta’s specialized methodology accentuated by De Palma’s focus. Was it a blow out, or was there a gun shot? An accident, or an assassination?

De Palma is regularly and rightfully noted for his penchant for homage, most prominently to Hitchcock (be it negatively or positively), but here the obvious allusion is to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). However, instead of tackling the illusory manipulations of cinematic images like the Italian master, De Palma deconstructs reality through the ambiguousness of the aural.

An excellent film, by a great director, Blow Out has frequently been ignored in De Palma’s body of work, overshadowed by his more popular movies like Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), and Mission: Impossible (1996) – each in their own right quite fantastic. But Blow Out, while at once situated as a mainstream release (Travolta, after all, was at the crest of his first wave of success), still manages to maintain some of the tawdry and overtly ecstatic traits more closely associated with De Palma’s “cultish” classics like 1973’s Sisters, Dressed to Kill from 1980, and Body Double from 1984. This sort of in-between make-up perhaps attributed to the film’s less than remarkable box office at the time. Regardless though, this is a highly cinematic work, one with many stylish flourishes and deliberate formal designs, one also, like most of De Palma’s output, well worth a look.

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