Criterion // 1981 // 108 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Bromley // April 26th, 2011
Murder has a sound all its own.
Brian De Palma is possibly the least respected of well-respected directors. Though he came up with the directing royalty of the 1970s -- guys like Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Altman and Malick -- De Palma has too often been written off as some sort of cheap Hitchcock knockoff trafficking in sex, violence and sleaze.
As a response to those critics who would so easily dismiss De Palma, here's Blow Out, available for the first time on Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
Movie sound man Jack Terry (John Travolta, From Paris With Love) has a problem: the sound effects he's using for the film he's working on, Co-Ed Frenzy, aren't working. While out gathering new sounds one night, he ends up recording an accident in which a car carrying a politician and a prostitute named Sally (Nancy Allen, RoboCop) plunges into a lake. Though Jack is able to rescue Sally, the man -- who, it turns out, was a possible candidate for president -- dies. As Jack listen back to his recording, he becomes convinced that there is a sound before the tire blows out -- a sound not unlike a gunshot, suggesting that the tire was shot out and it was no accident. As Jack goes deeper and deeper into the possible conspiracy -- bringing Sally along with him -- he attracts the attention of a shadowy figure named Burke (John Lithgow, Cliffhanger) looking to silence the pair once and for all.
Brian De Palma has long been one of my favorite filmmakers, and 1981's Blow Out is his best film. It's also one of the only movies in De Palma's catalogue that isn't just for De Palma fans. Let me back up. While movies like The Fury and Body Double and Femme Fatale are all terrific movies (especially Femme Fatale), you might have a hard time defending them or explaining their merits to someone who isn't a De Palma fan (Edgar Wright once said something along the lines of "De Palma fans eventually become De Palma apologists," [I'm paraphrasing, and badly] and I'm inclined to agree with that statement). Blow Out, on the other hand, is just categorically great -- it's an atypically commercial thriller that features all of De Palma's trademark style and fixations but doesn't alienate the wider audience (the other De Palma films that fall into this category are The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible, Carrie and, I guess, Scarface, though I don't quite get that film's appeal -- and I'm a diehard De Palma apologist). It's one of the few of the director's films that's at once deeply personal but maintains its broad appeal, and to show Blow Out to an audience uninitiated on the director's work would be to convince them that he was one of the best filmmakers of his time. They would not be wrong.
It would be easy to write off Blow Out as yet another Hitchcock rip-off, with a healthy dose of Antonioni's Blow-Up borrowed for the basic plot. Some of that is true; De Palma has never been shy about paying tribute to his inspirations (the fact that he titled the movie Blow Out suggests he wasn't really trying to hide anything), but this is not a film that's so easily dismissed. It's first and foremost a character study: another examination of male obsession (De Palma's favorite protagonist is the obsessed man) and the destruction it can cause. It's a political thriller, with shades of Ted Kennedy's infamous Chappaquiddick incident; De Palma has never met a political conspiracy he didn't like, from the JFK assassination-obsessed Gerrit Graham in 1968's Greetings to 2007's Redacted. It's a movie about making movies and the ways in which life imitates art imitates life. De Palma even responds to his own critics in the opening of the film, which fools us into thinking we're watching a gross exaggeration of his previous films; that it turns out to be a film-within-a-film called Co-Ed Frenzy is not just another of the director's clever tricks (he's one of the best pranksters in all of cinema), but an indication that not everything we see (or hear) in Blow Out will be as it appears. What seems to be a throwaway gag about cheap slasher movies is actually clever foreshadowing upon which the entirety of the film depends.
It's hard to believe that at the time he starred in Blow Out, John Travolta was one of the biggest movie stars in the world -- partly because his career has become a parody of what it once was, and partly because Jack Terry isn't necessarily the kind of part that a huge movie star takes. He is, ultimately, kind of impotent -- a victim of his own paranoia and obsessiveness, even though it comes from a noble place of trying to do the right thing. It's one of the best performances Travolta has ever given: effortlessly charismatic (he really was a great movie star once upon a time), streetwise but naive, physical and charming and sweet. We love Jack and want him to succeed, which makes it even harder to watch as he disappears further and further down a hole we know isn't going to lead anywhere good. And De Palma knows just how to torture his audience with that sense of doom. His films are all about delayed gratification -- or, in the case of something like Blow Out, punishment -- and the finale of the movie is another of his excruciating teases. No modern director can stretch out tension quite like De Palma, and the last 15 minutes of this movie make for one of the best setpieces he's ever put to film. Ultimately, the movie is a kind of tragedy. Because it's De Palma, though, there's a darkly comic twist; Blow Out has one of the best punchlines in any film since Some Like it Hot. The movie is a masterpiece.
The Criterion Blu-ray presents Blow Out in a stunning 1080p transfer, supervised by De Palma himself. The 2.40 widescreen image looks terrific, with bold colors and tremendous depth and detail; plus, there are no artifacts or flaws that are visible. You'd never know that the movie is 30 years old. The only audio option that's offered is a DTS-HD stereo track, but it's very good at balancing the dialogue and effects with Pino Donaggio's beautiful score (fans of Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof will no doubt recognize the "Sally and Jake" piano love theme). Some fans may be disappointed that there's not a full 5.1 remix (so your ears can really play tricks on you), but Criterion has always emphasized faithfulness to the source. No one who hears the stereo track is likely to complain.
De Palma is one of those directors who has never sat down to record a DVD commentary track for one of his films, making the new hour-long interview with him (conducted by The Squid and the Whale director Noah Baumbach) included on the disc a rare treat and almost the best bonus feature. Recorded in late 2010, the interview mostly covers Blow Out but spans into De Palma's filmography overall, and though Baumbach isn't really the best interviewer (he comes off more as a huge fan, which certainly has its advantages in the discussion), there's a lot of good stuff about the making of the movie. Fans of De Palma will be thrilled at the chance to hear the director talk about his work, and more casual viewers are likely to come away with a better understanding of who he is and why he matters. Two more interviews are also included in the supplemental section: the first with star Nancy Allen (recorded earlier this year) about working with De Palma in several films (she was also married to him for a brief time), and the second with Garrett Brown, inventor of the Steadicam, about the use of that technology in Blow Out.
As good as the De Palma/Baumbach interview is, the best bonus feature on Criterion's disc is actually the inclusion of De Palma's very first feature, 1968's Murder à la Mod (which the Dennis Franz character can be seen watching on television during Blow Out). Though the film was released by Something Weird Video in 2006, it makes much more sense packaged with Blow Out than taken on its own; the movie, about a filmmaker specializing in "nudie cuties" who has to track down a killer, isn't totally successful but shows so many trademarks of De Palma's later films that it's a joy to watch as a fan of the director (plus, it features an early performance by De Palma regular William Finley). The two films make a great double bill: Murder à la Mod shows the director first working out his technique and thematic obsessions, and Blow Out finds him perfecting them at the peak of his powers as a director. Rounding out the special features section is a collection of behind-the-scenes photos from Louis Goldman and the film's original theatrical trailer.
I've embarrassed myself a little in recent weeks, gushing in reviews about how the Criterion Collection has helped educate me and shape my tastes since I first started tracking down their catalogue on laserdisc. It's one thing when Criterion turns me on to a movie I hadn't previously heard about; it's another thing entirely when my favorite label releases one of my favorite films of all time (and it's going to happen again in a couple of months, too, when Criterion puts out Something Wild on DVD and Blu-ray). To see a movie I've loved for so long get such a top-notch treatment not only justifies my affection for it (people who know think it's worthwhile, too), but rewards me for being a fan for all these years. This is one my favorite Blu-ray releases of the year so far.
It's a good scream.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Bonus Film
* Photo Gallery
* IMDb: Blow Out
* IMDb: Murder à la Mod