Blow Out (1981) Brian DePalma
Production Budget: $18 million
Domestic Gross: $12 million
I really have been sitting in front of my computer for a long long time trying to figure out how to put into words my feelings of Brian DePalma. I mean, I like many of his films; “like“ the word I’d like to emphasize. Going through his IMDb list I am reminded I like Carrie, I like Untouchables, I like Carlito’s Way (at least as much as I can remember it), I like Casualties of War, I like Mission Impossible, and I like Snake Eyes. But that is as far as I’d go with him. In fact, the only movies I’ve ever had an interest in watching more than once are Mission Impossible and Casualties. Then I am reminded I didn’t like the The Fury, I hated Mission to Mars and Femme Fatale, and I downright loathe The Black Dahlia and Bonfire of the Vanities. I don’t even want to get into Scarface at this time because that is a whole can of worms. At his best he can mimmick the masters (and sometimes steal shots *ahem* Battleship Potemkin) to create an interesting visual style to match an effectively tense atmosphere. At his worst I wonder what incriminating photos Uwe Boll had of DePalma to let Boll write screenplays for him.
So to make a long story short (too late) I figured I would see Blow Out which got released on Criterion and just so happens to be a box office bomb. Blow Out is about a B movie sound editor Jack Terry (John Travolta) who is out in the woods one night getting new sounds when he catches a car crash on his sound equipment. The person killed in the crash was a Presidential hopeful and while hearing the recording Jack hears a gunshot which leads to the titular blow out.
To a film nerd with no life like me, I could easily point out this is very strongly inspired by Antonioni’s Blow Up about a photographer catching a murder on film and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation which is about a surveillance expert caught up in a secret plot. Those movies take a more complicated approach while Blow Out is content with being a thriller. Believe me, I’m not slighting the film when I say that. DePalma is great with suspense but he is shit when it comes to subtlety. And by focusing on the murder plot, we are invovled in Jack’s paranoia and voyeurism without having to personally hammer it home.
I also have to think DePalma was taking some cues from Hitchcock. DePalma sets up several set pieces where we know the danger is looming around the corner and the tension is wrung out for all its worth. The visuals and the sounds are great as we are coaxed into focusing on minute details. I can’t say enough about how well it was done when you are listening for the slightest creak or squak or bang.
Travolta does a great job as Jack. He is not playing his usual cool personas but as the man who is in way over his head trying to keep his cool. We see the range of his character from confident, to vulnerable, to rattled, to full on wreck. His performance really did carry the film. You also get good supporting roles from Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz, and John Lithgow.
If I were to criticize the movie, it would probably be if you were to really scrutinize the actions of the villain, they don’t make a lot of sense. In fact, even some of the conspirators question what the hell the killer is doing at certain points. Also, I wasn’t exactly sold on Nancy Allen’s ditzy character. While Allen does a good job, I figured her character would be more sexy and charasmatic rather than basically Marissa Tomei’s character from My Cousin Vinny.
So because this movie is Criterion and I am a film snob I therefore have to like it. In all seriousness this is probably my favorite DePalma movie. I clearly don’t love this director as his previous works inspire either mild enthusiasm or utter contempt. But this is the movie where I think DePalma puts it all together: great sound, great visuals, great acting, and effective suspense. There are a few nitpicks and gripes but I thought it was a very entertaining movie.