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.
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.