Like the double-headed Janus of Roman lore, Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller Blow Out gazes into a celluloid past while simultaneously peering beyond the distant horizon. Straddling thresholds of genre, style, and class, Blow Out challenges the seemingly dichotomous relationship between popular low-budget movies and esoteric Hollywood films.
Jack (a surprisingly likable John Travolta) is a sound technician for a slimy exploitation film factory who, while gathering sounds for their latest seedy picture, becomes embroiled in a murder plot that continuously thickens throughout the course of the film. With his escort companion Sally (Nancy Allen, then wife of director Brian De Palma), Jack embodies the “everyman” in his crusade against the corruption and vice that fester around him, rampant in the collusive killers and various authority figures in law enforcement, media, and government. As Jack tries desperately to be a steward of justice in the face of greedy immorality, his efforts are further thwarted by the murderous Burke (a chilling John Lithgow) until the cruelest bargain is met in the final moments of the film: Jack, struggling to preserve both the life of Sally and the glint of morality left in the world, is left to discover that one must be sacrificed for the sake of the other.
The story of Blow Out is rooted in the incendiary 1966 film Blow-Up, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Blow-Up, based on a short story by Julio Cortázar, recounts the tale of a London fashion photographer who unintentionally takes pictures of a nascent murder while in voyeuristic pursuit of a couple. Where Blow-Up succeeded in dazzling audiences with images that were scandalous and powerful, Blow Out more than aptly recreates that overwhelming effect with the faculties of audio production and editing. While sound is arguably as valuable to the moviegoing experience as sight, the sense of hearing frequently goes unappreciated and even abused in film, with recycled sound effects and hollow music acting as mere background to the alluring visuals.
The purest beauty in Blow Out lies in its self-awareness. The opening and closing frames take the viewer directly inside the grimiest gizzard within the underbelly of the film industry—a grubby, formulaic slasher produced by Jack’s company titled Coed Frenzy, nested within Blow Out as an embodiment of depravity. John is completely cognizant of the sleaze that encrusts his work, and over the course of the film he accepts this less as a banal fact of life than as an evil ingrained in society. De Palma speaks volumes on both the state of American film in the 1980s and his own place in the industry as a creative entity. Through Blow Out, De Palma attempted to reconcile the creative misgivings surrounding his earlier, more unsavory work—ever hear of Murder a la Mod?—and continued to probe those tropes of violence as he had in other mid-career works, most prominently Carrie, Dressed to Kill, and Scarface.
Blow Out is a feast for famished ears, accompanied with striking De Palma visuals (here retaining some of his favorite methods, split-screens and slow-motion) and served with a plot that genuinely engages and challenges the viewer as the story develops. The greatest humanity in this film reaches us from a grindhouse sound technician and a castoff pawn of an escort—a testament to the sheer strength of unexpected virtue and, ultimately, to the steep cost of filling the moral vacuums of our world.
The 53rd New York Film Festival ran from September 25 to October 11 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Both Blow Out and its 1966 predecessor, Blow-Up, are available for rental from Butler Library.