When talking about the New Hollywood generation of filmmakers, Brian DePalma is often overlooked. Maybe because his career has floundered in recent years, maybe because he never had a success at the same level as Spielberg, Scorsese or Coppola. Nevertheless, he had an exceptional run of movies in the seventies and eighties, and his 1981 classic Blow Out might be the best demonstration of his style, encompassing several of his recurring themes; voyeurism, paranoia, and technological innovation.
Blow Out is part remake of Blow Up, and part homage to The Conversation, with a clear Hitchcock influence. For most of its runtime it’s a fun, breezy thriller, with DePalma poking fun at his own style of filmmaking while also paying tribute to classic conspiracy thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and All the Presidents Men. Where it differs from these films though, is the cynicism that runs through it. John Travolta‘s initial heroism should get him some sort of reward but instead he’s treated as an inconvenience; the police are shown to be at best indifferent, at worst corrupt, and the ending is both a cruel punchline and one of the most hopelessly nihilistic, heartbreaking finales in cinema history. It’s genuinely upsetting, which contributed to the box office failure. However, as DePalma would say, it’s the endings like this that we remember.
Travolta gives a career best performance as Jack Terry, the sound man who unwittingly gets drawn into a conspiracy when he discovers he’s recorded the sound of a gunshot that caused the death of a high profile politician. His character is initially shown as something of a waster, wasting his talents on B-movie slashers but as the film goes on and we learn his backstory, he becomes an intensely tragic figure. Nancy Allen is also great as the other witness to the assassination – it’s her sweetest performance for DePalma, and completely distinct from her turns in Carrie and Dressed to Kill. Rounding out the main cast is John Lithgow as the terrifying heavy, whose calm, measured exterior masks his psychopathic nature. DePalma mines Lithgow’s height to make him an imposing, sinister figure, as opposed to the comic roles he would go on to be known for.
This newly restored transfer from Criterion, approved by DePalma himself, looks incredible. There’s a little noise on the picture in certain shots, but overall this is an excellent transfer, and really does justice to his unique style. He’s one of the most visually creative directors of his era, and Blow Out shows him at his most inventive. Filmed on widescreen, every shot is dynamic while the frequent split diopter shots (which ensure that both the background and foreground are simultaneously in focus) mean that there is always something interesting to take in.
DePalma is clearly fascinated by the sound technology being used, as shown in the lovingly constructed sequence where Terry painstakingly syncs up the sound recording with the photos. The sound design is perfect, and something I hadn’t noticed before is the curious clicking noise that Jack hears while recording sound effects, the origin of which is revealed later, but in a subtle, unnerving way that recalls Dario Argento‘s Deep Red.
Blow Out remains DePalma’s most complete, and satisfying film by quite a margin. While it often feels like his films are merely an excuse to pull together a series of set-pieces, here they’re completely in service to the story. It’s a bleak, cynical, devastating film but made with such love that it remains an absolute delight to watch, even when you know what’s coming.
Extras include an insightful interview with DePalma, where he talks to Noah Baumbach about the film. I’m a sucker for just listening to directors talk about films, and DePalma is clearly an avid film fan, making this essential viewing. Also included are interviews with Nancy Allen, and Garrett Brown, inventor of the Steadicam, as well as the usual collection of trailers, stills, and one of DePalma’s early experimental films, Murder à la Mod.