Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Brian De Palma|
|Produced by||George Litto|
|Written by||Brian De Palma|
|Music by||Pino Donaggio|
|Edited by||Paul Hirsch|
|Distributed by||Filmways Pictures|
|Running time||108 min.|
|Budget||$18 million |
Blow Out is a 1981 thriller film, written and directed by Brian De Palma. The film stars John Travolta as Jack Terry, a movie sound effects technician from Philadelphia who, while recording sounds for a low-budget slasher film, serendipitously captures audio evidence of an assassination involving a presidential hopeful. Nancy Allen stars as Sally Bedina, the young woman Jack rescues during the crime. The supporting cast includes John Lithgow and Dennis Franz.
The film is directly based on Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film Blow Up, substituting the medium of photography with the medium of audio recording. The concept of Blow Out came to DePalma while he was working on the poorly received thriller Dressed to Kill (1980). The film was shot in the late autumn and winter of 1980 in various Philadelphia locations on a relatively substantial budget of $18 million.
Blow Out opened to minuscule audience interest in 1981, however it received a mostly positive critical reception. The lead performances by Travolta and Allen, the direction by DePalma and the visual style were cited as the strongest points of the film. Critics also recognised the stylistic and narrative connection to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, who DePalma is a fan of. Over the years since its initial theatrical release, it has developed status as a cult film and received a home media release by the Criterion Collection, a company who specialise in "important classic and contemporary film", which re-ignited public interest in the film.
While in post-production on a low-budget exploitation film, Philadelphia sound technician Jack Terry (Travolta) is told by his producer that he needs a more realistic sounding scream and better wind effects. After leaving the studio to record potential sound effects at a local park, he sees a car careen off the road and plunge into a nearby creek. Jack dives into the water to help, discovering a dead man and a young woman, still alive, trapped inside the submerged car. He pulls her to safety and accompanies her to a local hospital. Jack learns that the driver of the car was the governor (and a presidential hopeful); the girl was an escort named Sally (Allen). Associates of the governor attempt to whitewash the incident by concealing that Sally was in the car, and they convince Jack to smuggle Sally out of the hospital with him.
Jack listens to the audio tape he recorded of the accident, wherein he distinctly hears a gunshot just before the blow out that caused the accident. He sees a television report that, seemingly by coincidence, Manny Karp (Franz) was also in the park that night and filmed the accident with a motion picture camera. When Karp sells stills from his film to a local tabloid, Jack splices them together into a crude movie and syncs them with the audio he recorded, becoming even more suspicious that the accident was actually an assassination. Unknown to Jack, Sally and Karp were both co-conspirators in a larger plot against the governor. The gunman, Burke (Lithgow), intended that Sally also die in the crash. He begins murdering local women bearing a resemblance to Sally, whose deaths are attributed to a serial killer, "the Liberty Bell Strangler." Jack draws Sally into his own private investigation of the incident. She steals Karp's film of the car accident, which, when synced to Jack's audio, clearly reveals the gunshot that anticipated the blow out. Nevertheless, nobody believes Jack's story, and every move he makes is immediately silenced by a seemingly widespread conspiracy.
Finally, Jack attempts to gather irrefutable proof of the assassination attempt, wiring Sally with a hidden microphone and sending her off to meet a purported media contact. Shadowing her from a distance, he is alarmed to see that his supposed contact is Burke, not the reporter. Sally is the last loose end for Burke to eliminate, and her death will be attributed to the "Strangler." Immediately realizing that she is in danger, Jack attempts to warn her, but Sally and Burke slip out of range and into the Liberty Day parade. Jack makes a mad dash across Philadelphia, attempting to head them off and rescue Sally. He crashes his Jeep, however, and is knocked out. By the time Jack awakens, Burke has taken Sally to a rooftop where he attacks her. Still listening in on his earpiece, Jack spots them. He hears Sally screaming as he rushes to save her, but he is too late. He arrives just after Burke has strangled her to death and is marking her body with the Strangler's signature bell pattern. Jack takes Burke by surprise, overpowers him, and manages to stab him to death with his own weapon. Jack, devastated and on his knees, then takes Sally's lifeless body in his arms.
Ironically, Burke's death ties up the last loose end and the cover-up is a success. Jack begins listening to the recording of Sally's voice over and over again, becoming obsessed with it. In the last scene, Jack is back in the editing room and it is shown that he used Sally's death scream in the exploitation film. The producer is ecstatic that he found a perfect scream and plays it multiple times, forcing Jack to cover his ears.
After completing Dressed to Kill, De Palma was considering several projects, including Acts of Vengeance (later produced for HBO starring Charles Bronson and Ellen Burstyn), Flashdance, and a script of his own titled Personal Effects. The story outline for Personal Effects was similar to what would become Blow Out, but was set in Canada.
De Palma scripted and shot Blow Out in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, his home town. The film's $9 million budget was high for De Palma and Filmways spent an additional $9 million to market the film. De Palma considered Al Pacino for the role of Jack Terry, but ultimately chose John Travolta. Travolta lobbied De Palma to cast Nancy Allen for the role (the three had previously worked together on Carrie); De Palma hesitated at first—he and Allen were married at the time and did not want Allen to have a reputation for only working in her husband's pictures—but ultimately agreed. In addition to Travolta and Allen, De Palma filled the film's cast and crew with a number of his frequent collaborators: Dennis Franz (Dressed to Kill, The Fury, Body Double); John Lithgow (Obsession); cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Obsession); editor Paul Hirsch (Hi, Mom!, Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Obsession, Carrie, The Fury); and composer Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Home Movies, Dressed to Kill).
Seventy percent of the film was shot at night. "Basically I just shot Blow Out straight," replied cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond., "... By not diffusing and not flashing as much ... That doesn't mean I necessarily like that look but I think it was good for the picture. You see, I like a softer look, a more diffused look." During the editing process, two reels of footage from the Liberty Parade sequence were stolen and never recovered; the scenes were reshot with insurance money at a cost of $750,000. Because Zsigmond was no longer available, László Kovács lensed the reshot sequences.
Themes and allusions
Thematically, Blow Out almost "exclusively concern[s] the mechanics of movie making" with a "total, complete and utter preoccupation with film itself as a medium in which ... style really is content." In numerous scenes, the film depicts the interaction of sound and images, the manner in which the two are joined together, and methods in which they are re-edited, remixed, and rearranged to reveal new truths or the lack of any objective truth. The film uses several of DePalma’s trademark techniques: split-screen, the split diopter lens, and the elaborate tracking shot.
As with several other De Palma films, Blow Out explores the power of guilt; both Jack and Sally are motivated to help right their past wrongs, both with tragic consequences. De Palma also revisits the theme of voyeurism, a recurring theme in much of his previous work (for example, Hi, Mom!, Sisters, and Dressed to Kill). Jack exhibits elements of a peeping tom, but one who works with sound instead of image.
Blow Out incorporates multiple allusions both to other films and to historical events. Its protagonist's obsessive reconstruction of a sound recording to uncover a possible murder recall both Michelangelo Antonioni's film Blowup and Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation. The film alludes to elements of the Watergate scandal and the JFK assassination. The film also recalls elements of the Chappaquiddick incident, although De Palma intentionally tried to downplay the similarities.
De Palma also explicitly references two of his previous projects. At one point in the film, Dennis Franz watches De Palma's film Murder a la Mod on television. Originally, the character was to watch Coppola's Dementia 13, but Roger Corman demanded too much for the rights. A flashback where Travolta recalls an incident where his work got a police informant killed was also taken from an abandoned project, Prince of the City, which was ultimately directed by Sidney Lumet.
Blow Out opened on July 24, 1981 to positive reviews from critics, including several ecstatic ones. In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael gave the film one of her few unconditional raves: "De Palma has sprung to the place that Robert Altman achieved with films such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville and that Francis Ford Coppola reached with the two Godfather films—that is, to the place where genre is transcended and what we're moved by is an artist's vision.... It's a great movie. Travolta and Nancy Allen are radiant performers." Roger Ebert's four-star (out of four) review in the Chicago Sun-Times noted that Blow Out "is inhabited by a real cinematic intelligence. The audience isn't condescended to.... We share the excitement of figuring out how things develop and unfold, when so often the movies only need us as passive witnesses."
Blow Out's public reputation, however, has grown considerably in the years following its release. As a "movie about making movies," it has earned a natural audience with subsequent generations of cineastes. In particular, Quentin Tarantino has consistently praised the movie, listing it alongside Rio Bravo and Taxi Driver as one of his three favorite films. In homage, Tarantino used the music cue "Sally and Jack" from Pino Donaggio's score in Death Proof, Tarantino's segment of Grindhouse. Noel Murray and Scott Tobias of The AV Club put Blow Out at #1 of their list of De Palma's best films ("The Essentials"), describing it as, "The quintessential De Palma film, this study of a movie craftsman investigating a political cover-up marries suspense, sick humor, sexuality, and leftist cynicism into an endlessly reflective study of art imitating life imitating art." In April 2011, the film became a part of the Criterion Collection with a DVD and Blu-ray release. Extras include new interviews with Brian De Palma and Nancy Allen. The Criterion release also includes De Palma’s first feature-length film Murder a la Mod.
The film was given a widespread release internationally; first in the Netherlands on September 24, 1981 and then in Australia on January 14, 1982, Hong Kong on February 11, 1982, in France on February 17, 1982 and in Japan on March 20, 1982.
- According to Bouzerau's book, Blow Out returned approximately $8 million at the box office.
- Filmways Board Elects Armstrong President, Chief Operating Officer Wall Street Journal (1923 - Current file) [New York, N.Y] 18 Aug 1981: 38.
- Bouzereau, Laurent (1988). The De Palma Cut: The Films of America's Most Controversial Director. New York: Dembner Books. ISBN 0-942637-04-6.
- Salvato, Larry; Schaefer, Dennis (1984). Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers. London, England: University of California Press. p. 333. ISBN 0-520-05336-2.
- "László Kovács". The Internet Encyclopedia of Cinematographers. Retrieved March 13, 2009.
- Canby, Vincent (July 24, 1981). "TRAVOLTA STARS IN DEPALMA'S 'BLOW OUT'". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
- Laviola, Franklin (June 7, 2011). "Blow Out: Witness to a Scream!". Frontier Psychiatrist.
- Ebert, Roger (January 1, 1981). "Blow Out". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
- Koresky, Michael (Fall 2006). "Sound and Fury: Michael Koresky on Blow Out". Reverse Shot. Retrieved March 13, 2009.
- Edelstein, David (September 7, 2001). "The Best Lover a Movie Could Have". Slate. Retrieved Mar 13, 2009.
- Kael, Pauline (August 1981). "The Perfect Scream". The New Yorker.. Reprinted in Kael, Pauline (1984). Taking It All In. New York: Henry Holt & Co. ISBN 0-03-069362-4.
- "Blow Out". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2012-04-20.
- E.g., Schrodt, Paul (August 26, 2006). "Blow Out". Slant Magazine. Retrieved Mar 13, 2009.
- E.g., Frazer, Bryant. "Blow Out". Deep Focus. Retrieved Mar 13, 2009.
- Quentin Tarantino (speaker). quentinscorsese.mp4. YouTube. Retrieved 2012-04-20.
- Charlie Rose (Host) (Oct 14, 1994). An Interview with Quentin Tarantino (The Charlie Rose Show). New York, NY: PBS. Retrieved 2012-04-20.
- Murray, Noel; Tobias, Scott (March 10, 2011). "Brian De Palma | Film | Primer". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 2012-04-12.
- Blow Out at the Internet Movie Database
- Blow Out at the TCM Movie Database
- Blow Out at Rotten Tomatoes
- Blow Out at AllMovie
- Criterion Collection Essay by Michael Sragow
- 1981 review of the film by Pauline Kael