Blow Out is a 1981 American neo-noir political thriller film written and directed by Brian De Palma. The film stars John Travolta as Jack Terry, a movie sound effects technician from Philadelphia who, while recording sounds for a low-budget slasher film, serendipitously captures audio evidence of an assassination involving a presidential hopeful. Nancy Allen stars as Sally Bedina, a young woman involved in the crime. The supporting cast includes John Lithgow and Dennis Franz. The film's tagline in advertisements was, "Murder has a sound all of its own".
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Brian De Palma|
|Produced by||George Litto|
|Written by||Brian De Palma|
|Music by||Pino Donaggio|
|Edited by||Paul Hirsch|
|Distributed by||Filmways Pictures|
|Box office||less than $14 million|
The film is directly based on Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film Blowup, replacing the medium of photography with the medium of audio recording. The concept of Blow Out came to De Palma while he was working on the thriller Dressed to Kill (1980). The film was shot in the late autumn and winter of 1980 in various Philadelphia locations on a relatively substantial budget of $18 million.
Blow Out opened to minuscule audience interest in 1981; however, it received a mostly positive critical reception. The lead performances by Travolta and Allen, the direction by DePalma and the visual style were cited as the strongest points of the film. Critics also recognised the stylistic and narrative connection to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, whom DePalma admires; and giallo films. Over the years since its initial theatrical release, it has developed status as a cult film and received a home media release by the Criterion Collection, a company who specializes in "important classic and contemporary film", which re-ignited public interest in the film.
While in post-production on a low-budget slasher film, Philadelphia sound technician Jack Terry (Travolta) is told by his producer that he needs a more realistic-sounding scream and better wind effects. While recording potential sound effects at a local park, he sees a car careen off the road and plunge into a nearby creek. The male driver is killed, but Jack manages to rescue a young woman, Sally (Allen), and accompanies her to a hospital. There, a detective interviews Jack about the accident, and Jack asks Sally out for a drink. He learns that the driver of the car was Governor George McRyan, and that Sally was his escort. Associates of McRyan attempt to conceal Sally's involvement, and persuade Jack to smuggle her out of the hospital.
Jack listens to the audio tape he recorded of the accident, wherein he distinctly hears a gunshot just before the tire blow out that caused the accident. He learns from a news report that, seemingly by coincidence, Manny Karp (Franz) was also in the park that night and filmed the accident with a motion picture camera. When Karp sells stills from his film to a local tabloid, Jack splices them together into a crude movie and syncs them with the audio he recorded, becoming suspicious that the accident was actually an assassination.
Unbeknownst to Jack, Sally and Karp were both co-conspirators in a larger plot against McRyan, a presidential hopeful. A rival candidate had hired Burke (Lithgow) to hook McRyan with a prostitute, take their pictures, and publish them so that McRyan would drop out of the race. However, Burke decided to alter the plan by blowing out the tire of McRyan's car with a gunshot, thereby causing an accident. When the authorities arrived to find McRyan with Sally, Karp would be there to film it all. Although Burke had not planned for McRyan to be killed, he is little bothered by the development since that still accomplished the goal of eliminating McRyan.
Aware that Jack and Sally are trying to prove that the car's tire was shot, Burke plots to destroy Jack's evidence and kill Sally. He begins murdering local women bearing a resemblance to Sally, whose deaths are attributed to a serial killer, "the Liberty Bell Strangler", so that he can cover up the future murder of Sally. Jack draws Sally into his own private investigation of the incident. Though initially reluctant, she eventually agrees to cooperate with him. When they go out for a drink, Jack reveals how he left his prior career in the police force after a wiretap operation he was involved in led to the death of an undercover cop.
To help Jack investigate McRyan's murder, Sally steals Karp's film, which, when synced to Jack's audio, clearly reveals the gunshot that precipitated the blow out. Nevertheless, nobody believes Jack's story and every move he makes is immediately silenced by a seemingly widespread conspiracy. A local talk-show host, Frank Donahue (Curt May), asks to interview Jack on air and release his tapes, to which Jack eventually agrees. Burke follows the development through a tap on Jack's phone, calls Sally as Donahue, and asks her to meet him at a train station with the tapes. When Sally tells Jack about Donahue's call, he becomes suspicious. He copies the audio tapes, but does not have time to copy the film before Sally's meeting.
Shadowing a wired Sally from a distance, Jack is alarmed to see that his supposed contact is actually Burke. Immediately realizing that she is in danger, Jack attempts to warn her, but Sally and Burke slip out of range and into a parade. Jack makes a mad dash across Philadelphia, attempting to head them off and rescue Sally, but crashes his Jeep and is knocked out. By the time he awakens, Burke has gotten the film from Sally and thrown it into a river. He then takes Sally to a rooftop and attacks her. Still listening in on his earpiece, Jack spots them. Jack takes Burke by surprise and manages to stab him to death with his own weapon, but it is too late: he has already strangled Sally. A devastated Jack takes her lifeless body in his arms.
Burke's death, combined with the loss of the film, ties up the last loose end. Jack's audio tapes alone are insufficient to prove a gunshot and the cover-up is a success. Jack begins listening to the recording of Sally's voice over and over again, becoming obsessed with it. In the last scene, he is back in the editing room and has used Sally's death scream in the exploitation film. The producer is ecstatic that he found a perfect scream and plays it multiple times, forcing Jack to cover his ears.
After completing Dressed to Kill, De Palma was considering several projects, including Act of Vengeance (later produced for HBO starring Charles Bronson and Ellen Burstyn), Flashdance, and a script of his own titled Personal Effects. The story outline for the latter was similar to what would become Blow Out, but set in Canada.
De Palma scripted and filmed Blow Out in his home town of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The film's $9 million budget was high for De Palma, and Filmways spent an additional $9 million to market the film. De Palma considered Al Pacino for the role of Jack Terry, but ultimately chose John Travolta, who himself lobbied De Palma to cast Nancy Allen for the role (the three had previously worked together on Carrie); De Palma hesitated at first — he and Allen were married at the time, and did not want Allen to have a reputation for only working in her husband's pictures — but ultimately agreed. In addition to Travolta and Allen, De Palma filled the film's cast and crew with a number of his frequent collaborators: Dennis Franz (Dressed to Kill, The Fury, Body Double); John Lithgow (Obsession, Raising Cain in later years); cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Obsession); editor Paul Hirsch (Hi, Mom!, Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Obsession, Carrie, The Fury); and composer Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Home Movies, Dressed to Kill).
Seventy percent of the film was shot at night. "Basically I just shot Blow Out straight," replied cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond., "... By not diffusing and not flashing as much ... That doesn't mean I necessarily like that look but I think it was good for the picture. You see, I like a softer look, a more diffused look." During the editing process, two reels of footage from the Liberty Parade sequence were stolen and never recovered; the scenes were reshot with insurance money at a cost of $750,000. Because Zsigmond was no longer available, László Kovács lensed the reshot sequences.
Themes and allusionsEdit
Thematically, Blow Out almost "exclusively concern[s] the mechanics of movie making" with a "total, complete and utter preoccupation with film itself as a medium in which ... style really is content." In numerous scenes, the film depicts the interaction of sound and images, the manner in which the two are joined together, and methods in which they are re-edited, remixed, and rearranged to reveal new truths or the lack of any objective truth. The film uses several of DePalma’s trademark techniques: split-screen, the split diopter lens, and the elaborate tracking shot.
As with several other De Palma films, Blow Out explores the power of guilt; both Jack and Sally are motivated to help right their past wrongs, both with tragic consequences. De Palma also revisits the theme of voyeurism, a recurring theme in much of his previous work (ex:, Hi, Mom!, Sisters, and Dressed to Kill). Jack exhibits elements of a peeping tom, but one who works with sound instead of image.
Blow Out incorporates multiple allusions both to other films and to historical events. Its protagonist's obsessive reconstruction of a sound recording to uncover a possible murder recall both Michelangelo Antonioni's film Blowup and Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation. The film alludes to elements of the Watergate scandal and the JFK assassination. The film also recalls elements of the Chappaquiddick incident, although De Palma intentionally tried to downplay the similarities.
De Palma also explicitly references two of his previous projects. At one point in the film, Dennis Franz watches De Palma's film Murder a la Mod on television. Originally, the character was to watch Coppola's Dementia 13, but Roger Corman demanded too much for the rights. A flashback where Travolta recalls an incident where his work got a police informant killed was also taken from an abandoned project, Prince of the City, which was ultimately directed by Sidney Lumet.
Blow Out opened on July 24, 1981 to positive reviews from critics, including several that were ecstatic. In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael gave the film one of her few unconditional raves: "De Palma has sprung to the place that Robert Altman achieved with films such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville and that Francis Ford Coppola reached with The Godfather films — that is, to the place where genre is transcended and what we're moved by is an artist's vision...it’s a great movie. Travolta and Allen are radiant performers." Roger Ebert's four-star review in the Chicago Sun-Times noted that Blow Out "is inhabited by a real cinematic intelligence. The audience isn't condescended to...we share the excitement of figuring out how things develop and unfold, when so often the movies only need us as passive witnesses." Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a rating of 87% based on 46 reviews, with an average grade of 7.8/10, with the critical consensus reading "With a story inspired by Antonioni's Blow Up and a style informed by the high-gloss suspense of Hitchcock, De Palma’s Blow Out is raw, politically informed, and littered with film references".
Despite positive reviews, the film floundered at the box office, due to terrible word of mouth about its bleak ending. Blow Out made $13,747,234 at the box office.[a 1] It was considered a disappointment, as Filmways had publicly claimed the film would make $60-80 million.
However, the public reputation of Blow Out has grown considerably in the years following its release. As a "movie about making movies", it has earned a natural audience with subsequent generations of cineastes. In particular, Quentin Tarantino has consistently praised the movie, listing it alongside Rio Bravo and Taxi Driver as one of his three favorite films. In homage, Tarantino used the music cue "Sally and Jack" from the score by Pino Donaggio score within his own film Death Proof, the second half of the double release Grindhouse. Noel Murray and Scott Tobias of The AV Club put Blow Out at #1 of their list of De Palma's best films ("The Essentials"), describing it as, "The quintessential De Palma film, this study of a movie craftsman investigating a political cover-up marries suspense, sick humor, sexuality, and leftist cynicism into an endlessly reflective study of art imitating life imitating art." In April 2011, the film became a part of the Criterion Collection with a DVD and Blu-ray release. Extras include new interviews with Brian De Palma and Nancy Allen. The Criterion release also includes De Palma’s first feature-length film Murder a la Mod.
The film was given a widespread release internationally; first in the Netherlands on September 24, 1981 and then in Australia on January 14, 1982, Hong Kong on February 11, France on February 17, and Japan on March 20.
|National Society of Film Critics Award||Best Cinematography||Vilmos Zsigmond||Nominated|
|Satellite Award||Best Classic DVD||Nominated|
- Filmways Board Elects Armstrong President, Chief Operating Officer Wall Street Journal (1923 - Current file) [New York, N.Y] 18 Aug 1981: 38.
- FILM CLIPS: SIGALERT ON 'HONKYTONK FREEWAY' FILM CLIPS: SIGALERT ON 'FREEWAY' Boyer, Peter J. Los Angeles Times 6 Aug 1981: h1.
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