Blow Out: De Palma, Down to Earth in Conspiracyland

Blow Out (Criterion)

Is it too sweeping to call Jack Terry, the B-movie soundman of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, John Travolta’s best performance ever? So be it. Who knew that De Palma—a director still more often than not dismissed as a technician with a Hitchcock obsession, a facility for bravura camerawork and a penchant for split screens—would be the director to best showcase Travolta’s talents? Or that Travolta would help bring out the best in De Palma? Fresh off the success of his psycho-sexual dream cinema of Dressed to Kill, Blow Out takes us out of the sleek, stylish, rarified worlds of the affluent and drops us into the working class and street culture of urban Philadelphia, where the flag-waving bash surrounding the Liberty Bell Bicentennial comes off like a small town civic celebration blown up by a big city budget.

John Travolta as soundman Jack Terry with the tool of his trade

Blow Out arrived in 1981 as the end of the seventies run of political conspiracy thrillers like an aftershock. Critics were quick to jump on the connections to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (it’s not like the title or the premise made it hard to come to that conclusion) and the echoes of Chappaquiddick, Watergate and various political assassinations of recent history. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation was brought up far less frequently, though it’s easily as important a wellspring for De Palma’s transformative work, and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, perhaps not so much an inspiration as a fellow traveler in the underside of conspiracy cinema, not at all

De Palma’s story is built on Jack Terry, the B-movie soundman played with easy amiability and modest professionalism by John Travolta. Front and center is the actor’s easy likability and screen warmth, a regular guy in the right place at the wrong time as an earwitness to a car accident and a gunshot. What was to be a humiliating scandal involving a political candidate veered into assassination, with our hero saving a hooker (Nancy Allen) from a drowning car and the police hushing the entire incident up. Not out of knowing complicity, mind you, simply playing ball to protect a political reputation in death. At first it galls Jack, and then, as evidence is destroyed and witnesses murdered, it scares him. He’s the blue collar everyman, less an idealistic champion of justice than a guy tired of being lied to. Plus, as long as the truth is buried, he’s a target of the self-styled “Liberty Bell Killer,” the façade our sinister and unstable political operative (a slim, unsettlingly non-descript John Lithgow) appropriates to cover up his real endgame.

In one sense it’s no more or less plausible than the corporate assassination bureau of The Parallax View or the political webs of Winter Kills, at least when it comes to the architecture of the assassination plot. And while, in the parlance of conspiracy theory, Blow Out is technically a lone gunman plot, the crime is seeped in political cynicism, moral corruption and bureaucratic complicity. If not accomplices, there are certainly enablers around the edges of the story, unseen figures behind phone calls to Lithgow’s delusional dirty tricks agent who half-heartedly try to stop his rampage.

While as technically accomplished and stylistically ambitious as anything he had done, De Palma plays with expectations of style. The opening scene, a parody of a bad Halloween knock-off complete with voyeuristic killer POV camera, manages to look like the real thing (a cheap, derivative slasher movie) and while lampooning the genre so slyly that it could be an in-joke aimed at fellow directors and cineastes. It’s like he’s telling his critics: You want derivative empty style? Here you go. Meanwhile De Palma sharpens his favorite techniques—split screens, eye-of-God overhead tracking shots, elegantly controlled Steadicam long takes, and a few visual effects to drop objects into the foreground in perfect focus (visually and narratively)—to communicate Jack’s subjective experience and sensory awareness without distracting the audience. And in a film culture where even good directors are lazy about the physical filmmaking process when they make films about making movies, De Palma offers a primer in the act of moviemaking when he shows Travolta’s character at work in the dubbing booth, capturing sounds with a boom mike and turning his raw materials into a primitive film with sound editing equipment and animation stand. Blow Out integrates De Palma style with narrative urgency and thematic consistency better than any of his films.

With its silky, sinister elegance, meticulous cinematic choreography, voyeuristic obsessions, and fascination with guilt, Blow Out is classic De Palma and his most human and mortally vulnerable film. Jack and Sally (Allen’s gum-smacking, street smart girl with bad judgment) aren’t a traditional romantic duo, which makes the unspoken attraction and growing friendship all the more affecting. There’s potential here, the possibility of romance between a loner haunted by a past guilt and a girl with trust issues, conveyed through his protective instincts for her, her growing trust in him, and the growing comfort and physical interaction between the actors. De Palma’s sleekly brutal climax has been dismissed as cynical. I call it tragic without a trace of irony. It’s just the price of survival in a predatory world.

De Palma cinema in focus

The film has previously been available on movie-only DVD from MGM. Criterion beautifully remasters the film in a restored digital transfer, supervised and approved by De Palma, for a generously supplemented two-disc DVD edition and single-disc Blu-ray debut. No commentary track (De Palma has never recorded audio commentary for any of his releases to date) but De Palma does sit down with filmmaker Noah Baumbach for a new hour-long discussion of the film. There is also a new 25-minute interview with actress Nancy Allen and a 15-minute interview with Garrett Brown, the camera operator for the Steadicam shots in the film and the creator of the Steadicam (as well as numerous other camera accessories); he provides a practical demonstration of his equipment as part of the interview. The rarity in this collection of supplements is De Palma’s complete 1967 experimental feature Murder á la Mod, restored and presented in 1080p HD on the Blu-ray edition.

The set is completed by a gallery of on-set photos by photographer Louis Goldman and an accompanying booklet featuring an original essay by critic Michael Sragow and a reprint of Pauline Kael’s 1981 review of the film for “The New Yorker.” Sragow’s essay can be read on the Criterion website here.