Blow Out director Brian De Palma has spent most of his career paying tribute to other filmmakers. Whether it’s the gangster movies of the 1940s, with Scarface and The Untouchables, or his unashamed homage to Alfred Hitchcock, such as Obsession and Dressed To Kill, his films are never far from being almost attributed, or at least co-directed, by one of his idols. Surprisingly then, and in part because of those traits, Blow Out is quintessentially a De Palma film.
Out one night recording for his latest movie, soundman Jack Terry (John Travolta) hears a car screeching round the corner before hurtling into the water. Diving to the rescue, Jack finds the driver already dead but manages to rescue Sally (Nancy Allen). While at the hospital Jack learns that the driver of the car was potential presidential candidate Governor McRyan and Sally is not his wife. The plot thickens when Jack listens to the tapes of the accident and discovers the supposed tire blow out on the car was no accident and creepy stooge Burke (John Lithgow) is hot on his and Sally’s trail.
Loosely based on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, which saw the protagonist accidentally uncover a murder by looking too closely at a photo of a beautiful woman, Blow Out sees De Palma at his extravagant best. While continuing his Hitchcockian camera angles, never ceasing to find inventive places to put his camera, De Palma takes us on a thrill ride so forced and convoluted as to have that typically ‘made up’ Hollywood nonsense written all over it. But, in doing so De Palma, who also wrote the script, captures the magic of film.
With Jack being a soundman, De Palma seeps us in the magic of movie making not dissimilar to last year’s magnificent Berberian Sound Studio. Jack’s recordings play a key component in unraveling the mystery but also in fleshing out the character. Jack, acting almost as his director’s alter ego, is meticulous about his work. Every sound effect tells its own story, every background click or pop is rarely by accident. But that’s not to assume that De Palma gets bogged down in plot. Far from it, in fact the plot never quite settles on what it wants to be, jumping from one idea to another while never losing site of the fact Jack is caught up in the middle of it all, even if he is the only one who really knows it.
Lithgow is doing his typically reptilian villain routine. Hissing threats down the phone while creepily smiling at those who don’t know better. Allen is on amusingly chatty form as the dippy Sally. Her opening scene, which sees her trying to resist sleep having been sedated in hospital, immediately captures the fun naivety of the character. Travolta meanwhile, having worked with Allen and De Palma on Carrie, dispenses with his early career cool to bring a wide-eyed paranoia to the screen. He’s never on a par with Gene Hackman’s quiet terror of The Conversation, much more chain-smoking and hair pulling, but he’s nonetheless a protagonist who is believably on the edge.
It’s not De Palma’s best work but it probably says more about him as a filmmaker than any of his other films. Often hammy, repeatedly forced but always thrilling, Blow Out is De Palma at his grandiose best.