Brian De Palma's Coming of Age: Blow Out (1981)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on February 1, 1981 @ .

Brian De Palma has often seemed the bastard son of Alfred Hitchcock and Lizzie Borden. His work has suffered from being overly derivative and ridiculously gory. If De Palma had a personal vision, it was subsumed by tricks and a sensibility that turned style into self-consciousness. He fell back on nightmares and gristle; his cinema may have been visceral, but it was seldom veracious.

When one heard that De Palma was doing a movie entitled Blow Out, one assumed that Hitchcock and Ms. Borden were to be joined by Michelangelo Antonioni in an anti-climactic menage a trois. Imagine the surprise when Blow Out turned out to be a work of surety, intelligence, and originality. In Blow Out the gore is gone, and De Palma uses Hitchcock and Antonioni creatively and with authority, He finally is his own man, a man of ideas.

De Palma allows himself only one excessive use of Hitchcock, but it is so beautiful and so expressive that it fits. When Jack (John Travolta) holds Sally (Nancy Allen) in his arms near the end of the film, the sky above them lights up with an incredible display of fireworks. The moment might seem overdone, but the irony and emotion of Jack are extreme. One may remember the fireworks in Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief or the carnival in Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running when Frank Sinatra help Shirley MacLaine in his arms. But the sequence in Blow Out has a life of its own.

De Palma is much more in touch with Hitchcock's sense of violence in Blow Out than ever before, and he uses it to great effect. One very Hitchcockian touch is the murder of the prostitute in the stall in the women's room at the railroad station. The killer is in the next stall and reaches down with wire. From afar we see only the prostitute's red shoes under the stall kicking frantically as she is hung and strangled. The horror is from a distance and is not explicit; it is as memorable as a Hitchcock murder. But it is worthy of a creator, not just a copier.

The plot of Blow Out easily could be trite, but De Palma does not let the idea of a conspiracy dominate him. He uses it to advance many themes with which he is dealing. And Blow Out is intriguingly detailed. Jack Terry is a sound man working on exploitation movies in Philadelphia. He is out at night recording the wind in the woods when he witnesses a car crashing through a barrier and plunging into the river. He dives into the water and rescues a girl from the submerged car; he is unable to save the dead male driver. At the hospital Jack learns that the driver was the governor of Pennsylvania and the leading candidate for President. The governor's aide asks Jack not to reveal that there was a woman with the governor because it would upset his family. Jack is reluctant and says, "I just don't know if I can do that." When the aide says that the scandal would come with the knowledge that the governor and the girl were together for sexual purposes, Jack answers, "The is what happened. That is the truth."

Jack takes the girl Sally from the hospital; she doesn't want to go home, so he takes her to a motel when she falls asleep. Then listening to his tape, Jack realizes he has recorded a gunshot just before the car had a blow out and crashed into the river. Jack enlists Sally's help to uncover the assassination. Eventually Jack finds out that Sally has a partner who is a photographer who takes sexually-incriminating pictures of men with Sally. Jack frightens her with the knowledge that she was being set up for murder. He convinces Sally to get the film that her partner shot at the scene of the crash, and with the sound he had recorded he makes a convincing document, which a local investigative reporter wants to put on a tv to show what Jack says actually happened.

The killer tricks Sally into meeting with him with the film and tape of the governor's killing. Jack, who wired Sally for sound for her meeting with the investigative reporter, pursues Sally and the killer but loses them. They take the subway to Penn's Landing where a huge patriotic celebration is taking place. Jack, tortured by his miscalculation, frantically follows them, careens through a parade, crashes his vehicle into a department store display window, and then follows them on foot. But his technology is failing him as it has in the past with a police officer he wired. Only at the end does Jack's technology fulfill its purpose. But it does so in a haunting, private, benumbing way.

It may not be until the end -- which is unexpected but consummate -- that we realize how beautifully everything is worked out in Blow Out. It is not tied together one-dimensionally. There is a consistency and an intelligence that doesn't exist in any other Brian De Palma film. Everything is integral. Where a lesser director would have faltered is in the film's handling of its political themes. As in Nashville, The Conversation, and even Citizen Kane, America is a character in Blow Out; De Palma focuses on America's lore and its values.

The death by water recalls Chappaquiddick. The killer is a product of Watergate -- an ordinary monster who is so dedicated to his objective that he refuses to leave any loose ends and goes after then himself. He took matters into his own hands when he killed the governor instead of embarrassing him and just eliminating him from the election as the politicos planned. He strangles two women in his plot to cover up what happened. He is workmanlike and calculating. He uses military words such as "parameters" and "operation." Like Jack, he uses technology; he taps phones and has an extraordinary killing instrument, a wire that comes out of his wrist watch.

One of the main themes in Blow Out is what happened to liberty. Blow Out takes place during a fictional Liberty Day Jubilee in Philadelphia, where the historic city is celebrating that it is one hundred years since the Liberty Bell last rang. But liberty is ironic. The murderer wears a red, white, and blue button that says, "I Love Liberty." Jack works for Independence Pictures, but they make exploitation films. When Sally cries out for Jack's help, she is in front of a giant American flag next to the ringing replica of the Liberty Bell. The killer at times wears a hardhat with a bell insignia, and the Philadelphia Daily News has a Liberty Bell in its logo. Because of his sex murders, the killer is labeled by the media "The Liberty Bell Strangler." After crashing his vehicle into the display window of Wanamaker's department store, Jack lies in an emergency vehicle with a bandage around his head, like a fallen drummer boy. But Jack rips it off like a useless adornment as he tries to save Sally.

In Blow Out liberty is hung and strangled. The killer hangs one and strangles two victims with his wire. The prostitute is hung; an undercover policeman who is wired by Jack to reveal police corruption also was hung in a bathroom stall. To carry the metaphor further, when Jack crashes his vehicle into Wanamaker's window, the exhibit in the window is of two British soldiers and a patriot with a noose around his neck. In Blow Out the killer is a strangler, and freedom is choked.

A further irony in Blow Out is that wire is both the lethal thread and the tape. The policeman who is killed is "wired," but the wire betrays him; when he perspires the battery shorts and burns him. Like "The Liberty Bell Strangler's" first victim, he has marks on his abdomen. And when she is going to meet the killer thinking he is an investigative reporter and is going to be wired for sound, Sally says to Jack, "Bring on the wire," which is replete with irony.

Along with loss of liberty, the difference between reality and appearance is another pivotal theme in Blow Out. The governor appears to die in a freak accident. Sally takes men to bed, but she doesn't have sexual intercourse. Her photographer partner photographs the men in compromising situations, but the appearance is not the reality. The killer pretends to be the tv investigative reporter as he gets Sally to go with him. The tire with the incriminating bullet holes is replaced by a tire that appears to be the real tire. The killer promotes himself as a sex killer as a "cover"; although he commits the sex murders and mutilations with zeal, he kills professionally.

Blow Out even begins in illusion -- with a film within a film. Jack uses the exploitation actress's own inadequate scream (the truth) in the opening scene, but the director protests -- he wants a better scream. And this becomes one of the major metaphors of the film. De Palma, showing his range, is even playful with the idea in the film's funniest sequence when the scream of a girl trying out is totally false and absurd. At the end of Blow Out appearance and reality are used in stunning irony. But none except Jack knows that irony. Through the movie he has been the only one who has seen the difference between appearance and reality. He wants them to be one, but they aren't. He can't make them be. Finally, the scream is real; the appearance isn't. Hack has found the truth.

Jack has assumed he can use technology to solve everything, but he finds pout he can't. Sally says, "The only real trouble I ever got into was when I was too careful." And Jack gets involved because he wants people to care. Both Jack and Sally are victimized by trying to control events. But for them care and planning are futile and destructive. Events, like tapes, unravel.

In two marvelous sequences we see how Jack's technology goes out of his control. In overhead shots we see the strewn equipment and wasted tape both when Jack finds his tapes have been erased and near the end when he is going to edit the tape he has kept. Then the camera roams the room wayward and lost. His technology and his world are in chaos. They are wonderful images of technology gone awry. Jack comes to realize the fallability of human nature -- man sweats, people are ignorant and gullible, emotion can thwart technology. Jack ultimately becomes aware of his own fallability, his own humanity, and the awful limitations of technology.

Blow Out is Brian De Palma's film, but it is also cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond's. When one remembers that two of the major films of the last half-decade -- Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Deer Hunter -- were photographed by Zsigmond, the importance of his collaboration is apparent. De Palma and Zsigmond work essentially with the colors red, white, and blue in Blow Out. Zsigmond's range is remarkable from the lurid opening sequence to the immaculate dazzle of the red, white, and blue fireworks. He turns dingy, immense 30th Street Station in Philadelphia into a fascinating setting. His shots of the columns and the oblong panels of glass are arresting, and the memorial for the war dead (not identified in the film) is show from above and behind, its angel's wings adding to the mystery of the piece. Simple conversations are made visually interesting by Zsigmond's use of color and lighting. His camera moves with life and purpose. Zsigmond's work is as evocative as any cinematographer's.

The production design of Paul Sylbert works surprisingly well with the red, white, and blue color scheme that dominates so thoroughly. The editing pf Paul Hirsch effectively mixes De Palma's many different techniques. The music by Pino Donaggio is moving, especially near the end when Zsigmond uses it to heighten the romantic ironies.

John Travolta make a convincing Jack driven to seek the truth but panicky in the face of emotion. Nancy Allen's Sally is a descendant of Shirley MacLaine's Ginny in Some Came Running -- dumb but not so dumb, soiled but innocent, loyal but skitterish. And Jack Lithgow is aptly disturbing as the calculating, brutal thug.

In Blow Out Brian Zsigmond has become a film director with a substantial character. He has wit, style, and his own identity. He now has a vision of the world and its humanity. And that vision is no longer the vision of a technician or a trickster, but it is the clear, challenging, personal vision of an artist.

© 2000-2023 Tony Macklin