Blow Out

Movie Information

In Brief: Brian De Palma does Antonioni — replacing the damning image from Blowup with an incriminating sound recording (our protagonist is a movie sound effects man rather than a photographer). More aptly, I should say De Palma does Antonioni as one might imagine Antonioni on speed. That's to say that Blow Out (1981) is no slow-paced moody think-piece with attendant existentialist hooey. No, De Palma takes the premise and turns it into a flat-out thriller with no pretensions of any kind. It's packed with De Palma-esque trappings — gore, a serial killer, the exploitation film business, a hooker heroine (Nancy Allen — then Mrs. De Palma), a political conspiracy and a general air of the sleazy. John Travolta stars as the sound man who both witnesses and records the sound of something he probably would have been better off having known nothing about. Essentially, he's come upon an "accident" that's actually an assassination, becomes involved by saving the victim's hired lady of the evening and then becomes intrigued by the rush to cover everything up. The ending of it all is deeply disturbing and possibly the bleakest of De Palma's career.
Score:

Genre: Thriller
Director: Brian De Palma
Starring: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz, Peter Boyden
Rated: R

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Few may remember this, but Blow Out was originally promoted — before it was made or even had a title — with a writing contest De Palma held in conjunction with the now long defunct Canadian film magazine Take One. Judging by the final year of the magazine’s publication, it may well have been the last thing they did. It wasn’t long after the contest issue that I received a notice the magazine had folded — with an offer of magazines to choose from the fulfill my subscription. My memory may not be quite accurate — come on, this was 36 years ago — but the idea was that readers could submit a scene based on information given about the assassination scene. (Yes, I tried my hand at it, but never finished it, which was perhaps just as well.) No winner was announced as far as I know. Certainly no one’s name other than De Palma’s appears on the screen, and the film that made — apart from Antonioni aspect — seems like pure De Palma. In fact, it plays like a less playful — a lot less playful — dry-run for Body Double (1984).

 

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For what is such a relatively serious film — well, seriously for a De Palma picture — the story is a singularly bizarre mix of exploitation filmmaking, a hooker, her pimp, a beloved politician with dubious morals, a political machine in cahoots with a serial killer involved in an assassination cover-up, and some serious lampooning of empty patriotic posturing. Somehow or other it almost makes sense — or at least it moves in such a way that it doesn’t matter. Travolta gives one of his better performances as the hapless sound engineer — with a troubled past — who finds himself mired in this situation while out recording wind noises for the crummy horror movie he’s working on. Nancy Allen (in her third and final hooker role for her husband — no comment) is fine as the loose lady in distress, but by this time it was a role she could play in her sleep. The movie is filled with the usual delightful bag of DePalma tricks, but the tone is finally uncharacteristically grim. It’s not so much the actual ending of the drama that sticks with you as such a downer, but the final scene where Travolta finally gets the perfect embellisment for the lousy slasher movie he’s been working on throughout the film. Whether not it’s one of the filmmaker’s best films is debatable, but it’s certainly one of his most memorable.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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20 thoughts on “Blow Out

  1. T.rex

    Great film. Do you think Copola’s THE CONVERSATION was also an influence?

    • Ken Hanke

      It could well be, but The Conversation is one of those movies I’ve never caught up with.

    • Edwin Arnaudin

      Do you think Copola’s THE CONVERSATION was also an influence?

      Yes, down to the bleak ending. It’s time to watch that one again.

  2. T.rex

    I must admit that I doubt that a magazine would have had every still from the film but I was totaling to just “go with it”. A Harmless macguffin.

    • Me

      Almost sounds like one of those things where people put up an entire film online in gif form.

          • T.rex

            How fun would it be to see Travolta and Allen staring at a computer screen?

          • Ken Hanke

            It would take some adjusting of the material — unless you made it a period piece — but it could be done. A lot of plots would have to be majorly reworked today simply because of the unfortunate ubiquity of cell phones, which I mostly wish had never been invented. Not that I can think of a single one that’s any great shakes, but that old “The calls are coming from inside the house!” shocker would be impossible now — unless you somehow work in a “no signal” aspect where landlines are all you have. More often than not, that’s more awkward than anything else.

          • T.rex

            I’m sorry but critics got it wrong on TOYS. I love that film (yes, the ending with the toy war is horrible) and the soundtrack is wonderful. For nothing else the movie did introduce me to Rene Magrite. I miss when studios took chances.

          • Ken Hanke

            I never read the reviews. But I hate, loathe, despise and abominate that movie. Well, it’s Barry Levinson, so it’s not a great shock.

            By the way, movies like that are why they (sort of) no longer take chances.

          • T.rex

            I’m guessing than that Diner and Rain Man won’t cut the mustard for Tuesdays. Ha!

          • T.rex

            Ok, I have to ask, What did you loathe about Toys?

          • Ken Hanke

            It’s noisy, obnoxious, overbearing, stupid, pushy, cutesy, slightly nauseating, and too, too Robin Williams. (I know it’s evil to say anything against Williams, but when he’s in his manic mode, my tolerance is really low,)

            No, I think it’s safe to say that I will never program a Barry Levinson film. There are far too many films of merit we’ve never shown to get to those. Aside from which I recently had to sit through Rain Man again…it’ll be a good 20 years before that happens another time.

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