Our review of Blow Out (Blu-Ray) Criterion Collection, published April 26th, 2011, is also available.
Murder has a sound all of its own!
It seems that every talented director of cinematic terror has that one misbegotten masterpiece: a special, lasting legacy committed to celluloid, where every single facet of its production came together forming a watershed work of the genre, yet was somehow critically under-appreciated and unceremoniously overlooked by audiences upon initial release. Thanks to home video, criminally undervalued titles like John Carpenter's The Thing, George Romero's Dawn Of The Dead, David Cronenberg's Videodrome, Dario Argento's Suspiria, Peter Jackson's Dead Alive, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2, have found proper appreciation and reverential re-discovery among legions of Fangoria-fed cinephiles. For my money, Blow Out is Brian De Palma's finest achievement, a suspense masterpiece that hopefully will likewise be sought out and viewed in an new enthusiastic light by discerning DVD aficionados and De Palma fans perhaps not privy to this stylish, electrifying motion picture.
Facts of the Case
Jack Terry (John Travolta—Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, Saturday Night Fever) is a talented audio technician, eking out a living by recording sounds for grade-Z horror films, the kind our esteemed Judge Patrick Naugle salivates over on a regular basis! One night, while recording standard nighttime outdoor sounds near a bridge, he hears the nasty screeching of brakes quickly coming forth from the darkness, piercing the still, calm air. To his horror, a car violently plunges off the bridge and sinks into the murky depths of the water below. Jack jumps in, and manages to save one of the passengers of the car, Sally (Nancy Allen—Dressed To Kill, Robocop).
In the midst of all the chaos, Jack accidentally records the crash. It turns out that the deceased occupant inside was none other than a leading presidential candidate, Governor George McRyan. It gets worse—Sally is actually a high-price hooker whose nocturnal presence with the good Gov stands to tarnish more than a few reputations throughout the higher levels of government. And that's just the beginning of this cat-and-mouse caper. Jack, armed with his incriminating soundtrack to a killing, is inexplicably thrust into a serpentine murder mystery, stumbling upon a potentially secretive political assassination, all with subtle shades of Zapruder film and the infamous Chappaquiddick scandal thrown in for good measure, along with sly nods to those pesky Watergate plumbers (and more than just a passing nod to Michelangelo Antonioni's masterful Blowup). Somehow all these intermingled ideas and disparate plot elements twist and jive together into a complete, satisfying suspense masterpiece of a film.
As previously stated, Blow Out is my favorite Brian De Palma production, and that's saying a lot because I am an unapologetically huge fan of the majority of the suspense maestro's work. The man directs with such a go-for-broke bravado that his entire oeuvre of films practically cry out for exclamation points inserted within their titles…Dressed to Kill!, The Fury!, Blow Out!, Scarface!, The Untouchables!…okay, you get the idea! Indeed, Blow Out percolates with its psychologically serpentine plot twists, yet the film never bogs itself down in unnecessary complexity. Working with a lean yet meaty screenplay, De Palma implements coercive atmospherics and sleight of hand camera chicanery to fully spin this bravura tale of murderous conspiracy and political paranoia.
De Palma's direction is utterly brilliant here. He was arguably at the peak of his directorial prowess, at the height of a decade-long creative spell that produced an amazing body of work, including Carrie(1976), Dressed To Kill(1980), Scarface(1983), and The Untouchables(1987). With Blow Out, De Palma reaches into his usual grab bag repertoire of camera stylistics with typical panache and proficiency, and wrings each of his typically virtuoso set pieces for all the protracted suspense they're capable of eliciting.
Here, his inventive visual plot machinations seem inspired, and not illogically, flamboyantly forced. Witness the wonderful, imaginative way that De Palma dizzyingly spins his camera continually around Travolta to connote his disorientation upon discovering that his tapes have been erased; it makes the viewer feel just like the character at that exact moment, similarly confused and equally losing their bearings. The brilliant frame compositions, lush cinematography, and creative editing all amalgamate into a wholly fantastic film. Yes, De Palma sprinkles nods to some staples of the genre throughout—a little bit of Vertigo here, a little bit of The Conversation there, and a whole lot of Blow Up everywhere. It's all sensory stimuli overload at times, and that's the bloody, brilliant point.
Blow Out is also notable for featuring a then-youthful Travolta's first breakout adult role, a chance for him to shed that hotshot, cocksure, teen-steam Vinny Barbarino image once and for all by sinking his acting chops into an appealing, demanding, and intelligent adult role. Travolta proves that he is more than up for the challenge here. I'd go so far as to say that this is one of his finest leading performances yet committed to celluloid (and with his currently questionable track record, where he seems to be reverting back to his cheesy 1980s doldrums by taking the paycheck and appearing in crud like Swordfish, Battlefield Earth, and Lucky Numbers, I don't think he'll ever regain this respectable thespian glory, unless Quentin Tarantino decides to write a special part for him again). He is simply perfect in Blow Out—sympathetic in his desperation, and utterly likeable as the reluctant yet obsessive hero who just wants the truth, at whatever cost necessary. This is an under appreciated role and memorable performance that Travolta should be openly proud of, even if this part didn't proffer him the chance to dance.
The rest of the cast is equally good (yes, even the often-annoying Nancy Allen is solid here), including a younger Dennis Franz playing yet another early incarnation of his typically greasy, slimeball New York denizen, a role he could now certifiably play in his sleep. Those familiar with John Lithgow only from his television work may be surprised at how effectively chilling he is here as an assured, icily cool assassin always around to tie up those lingering loose ends.
For its DVD release, Blow Out is presented in an anamorphically enhanced transfer that retains its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. I'm not sure how much of this is attributable to existing flaws in the source material or just indicative of Vilmos Zsigmond's original photography, but the picture is definitely a bit on the soft side, no two ways about it. Sometimes, the picture (like in the scene in Chapter 5 where Travolta's character first points out the blowout discrepancies) looks downright out of focus and blurry to the point of indistinguishability. At least the image is not plagued by overt instances of edge enhancement, thank you very much. The transfer is also graced with good, vivid color fidelity, full of rich reds and wonderfully deep blacks. Furthermore, the image is relatively free of image noise and print flaws. There is some light grain speckled here and there—after all, this is a 20-year-old film, so don't go in expecting perfectly digital, blemish-free clarity. Don't get me wrong—I still found this to be a decent, clean transfer, even excellent at times, but there was certainly room for noticeable visual improvement.
The audio area of Blow Outfares a little better. Encoded in Dolby Digital 2.0, this surround track is good. Pino Donaggio's soaring score hits all its usual cinematic crescendos. His musical score is a mixed bag: sound quality-wise, it's sonically clear and distortion-free. However, many of these musical cues are laughable outdated in that horrible, early '80s light-jazz sorta way. The dialogue is always easily discernible, so the careful viewer won't miss any of those all-important sonic cues and clues crucial to the film's storyline. Of course, I still wish MGM would have seen fit to re-master Blow Out in a sweet 5.1 mix that would give some life to the thin, limited soundscape encoded here. This clean, accurate 2-channel surround mix still gets the job done though.
The only extra included in the package is a rough-looking trailer; so don't bother perusing for more under the hood, 'cause you just won't find it here. Oh wait, the pan-and-scan version is included on the flip side of this double-sided disc, in all its chopped, zoomed glory, so quit your moaning, Blockbuster-worshipping Joe SixPackers of the world; it's in there.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I recall reading an interview with Laurent Bouzereau where he stated his desire to expand Blow Out into a full-blown special edition, but apparently MGM nixed the idea of including a Bouzereau-produced documentary in this package. Bollocks to you then, MGM for cheaping out on this release, especially in a year laced with superlative supplemental material included on other new De Palma discs like Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Sisters, and Casualties Of War. Heck, even Phantom Of The Paradise, Obsession, and The Fury included some supplemental material on their recent releases, and these films are certainly among De Palma's second-tier work. Alongside these relatively complete editions, Blow Out's bare-bones DVD treatment just seems so disappointingly lacking, especially to those De Palma devotees (like me) who consider Blow Out to be a real cinematic gem. Granted, I'm thankful just to have this film finally on DVD in the first place, but MGM really fumbled a sure-fire touchdown on this one. Also, the cover art is pretty lame on this edition, but no worse than some of its cheapo VHS box incarnations, I suppose.
One could make an argument that Blow Out is the most underrated, overlooked film of the entire 1980s. Ripe for re-discovery, at least it now comes to DVD with a decent anamorphic transfer that retains its theatrical aspect ratio, and is bargain-priced to boot, with an MSRP of $14.99. Since you can pick it up at most places for a measly ten bucks, I would recommend this bare-bones disc to anyone, without hesitation. Now where are all those extras, MGM?
Blow Out is found innocent of all charges. It's De Palma's (and, for that matter, Travolta's) masterwork, and it's a thrilling film that has aged wonderfully and holds up remarkably well with repeat, extended viewings. MGM, however, is hereby sternly reprimanded for releasing this fine flick graced with merely a slapdash, basic presentation. This court strongly urges MGM to heed this Judge's plea to revisit Blow Out in the near future and ultimately release it complete with a deservedly deluxe, full-blown, special edition bells-and-whistles treatment. With a DTS track slapped on for good measure too, of course. We can all be dreamers, can't we?
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