Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #496
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: July 24, 1981
Sub-Genre: Suspense Thriller
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $13,747,234 (USA)
Running Time: 108 minutes
Director: Brian De Palma
Producer: George Litto
Screenplay: Brian De Palma
Special Effects: David Domeyer (uncredited)
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Score: Pino Donaggio
Editing: Paul Hirsch
Studios: Cinema 77, Geria Productions, Filmways Pictures
Distributor: Filmways Pictures
Stars: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz, Peter Boyden, Curt May, John Aquino, John McMartin, Deborah Everton, J. Patrick McNamara, Missy Cleveland, Roger Wilson, Lori-Nan Engler
Suggested Audio Candy:
Pino Donaggio Main Theme
I find it truly astonishing that Brian De Palma isn’t held in higher regard. Of all the directors emerging in the seventies, the Spielbergs, Coppolas and Scorseses, he receives the hardest time and is often referred to as a second-rate Hitchcock knock-off specializing only in sex, violence and sleaze. One look at his extensive résumé should be enough to banish any naysayers but, despite giving us such undisputable classics as The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way, he still doesn’t seem to receive his dues. While the latter in particular is one of my favorite films, it’s his output during the seventies and early eighties that fascinates me most.
From Blood Sisters in 1973, he embarked on an unprecedented run of cinematic marvels which culminated in the grossly misunderstood Body Double in 1984. Many of his films during this period underperformed at the box office and critics made a habit of dismissing them out of hand. His 1981 thriller Blow Out actually fared better than most, earning positive reviews pretty much across the board, but still the moviegoing public weren’t sold and, after a luke-warm response in North America, it was left once again to the rest of the world to balance his books. While I appreciate that some of his work didn’t appeal to the mass market, this is easily one of his most accessible films and has a far broader appeal than so much of his output during this period.
Of course, De Palma being De Palma, the first five minutes are typically playful, and lead us right up the primrose path, but anything else just wouldn’t be him. We start off on the outside looking in, assuming the role of prowler as we salivate other the throng of dorm kittens engaging in extracurricular activities and preparing for long, soapy washdowns. It appears we are in familiar ground as voyeurism has long since been a topic he has loved exploring and memories of Carrie instantly come flooding back, along with all the blood to our loins. Then, as the shower curtain is ripped wide open and our victim prepares to let out a blood-curdling final scream, we are greeted with a lifeless moan and placed firmly back into the real world.
For sound technician Jack Terry (John Travolta) the real world really isn’t much to write home about. His talents are wasted supplying the audio bells and whistles for low-budget trash such as Co-Ed Frenzy and he knows it, indeed, his disinterested look gives that away from the offset. Nevertheless, like the consummate professional, Jack packs up his gear and heads off to a secluded lake side spot during the dead of night to gather some fresh ambient sounds to keep the wolves from the door. An otherwise uneventful night soon perks up as a passing car suffers a blow out and careers into the creek before his very eyes. Thinking on his feet, he dives straight in, and manages to rescue a survivor from the sunken wreckage just in the nick of time.
While one would expect at least a pat on the back for such a selfless act of valor, Jack is instead grilled first by police and sworn to secrecy soon after. It turns out that the young woman he dragged to safety is expendable call girl Sally (Nancy Allen) and the authorities would much rather keep this on the hush-hush. You see, the other less fortunate passenger was a highly respected presidential candidate and leagues ahead in public polls at the time of his unfortunate “accident”. Something doesn’t ring true for Jack and, despite being told in no uncertain terms to let it go by officials looking at damage limitation, he does the precise opposite and listens back to his recordings at the first opportunity.
Pino Donaggio Blow Out
On second playback it is all too clear that this was no tragic accident. Moreover, this places both him and Sally in a precarious position as they will likely be snuffed out should he attempt to blow the lid off what appears to be a well thought out political assassination. Sally knows what is best for her, that being to get out of dodge fast, but Jack has other ideas and it’s time for the old Travolta charm to dissuade her from leaving state while he figures out his plan of attack. Meanwhile, trustworthy allies are at a severe premium and shadowy shooter Burke (John Lithgow) is fully invested with silencing the pair permanently.
Travolta gives one of his very best performances as the everyday man obsessed, one of De Palma’s favorite subjects. It was this performance alone which convinced Quentin Tarantino to cast him in Pulp Fiction after years in the wilderness and it’s easy to see why. He was actually suffering from insomnia during shooting and this helps no end with creating a brooding central character. Indeed, if the Academy recognized this kind of movie, then I am convinced that he would have been up for an Oscar nod but we all know that was never likely to happen. Jack is intensely likeable and, his dedication to doing the right thing, endears him to us effortlessly but his progressive slide into desolation is beautifully portrayed and Travolta captures his fretful folly exquisitely.
Allen provides the ideal “honey trap” for Jack and Sally makes up for what she lacks in smarts with a great likeability which stems from her trusting nature. Her role in Carrie turned heads and she received a Golden Globe nomination for her part in another De Palma movie, 1980’s Dressed To Kill, during which time she was actually married to the director. Here we are desperate to see her not come to harm and a character who could all too easily have ended up an inconsequential pawn ends up pivotal to our investment. De Palma regular Dennis Franz is also excellent as unscrupulous photographer Marino, looking to make a fast buck so he can further support his drinking habit.
I believe there are few modern filmmakers as adept at drawing out tension as De Palma and the breathless final act of Blow Out offers further testament to that claim. Lithgow always did make for a glorious villain and, as he closes in for the kill, it all reaches fever pitch. All the usual camera trickery is present and correct including split-focus, lopsided camera angles, and grand overhead shots as well as his first ever use of Steadicam while Pino Donaggio’s rousing score is amongst his very finest. Political conspiracy is a topic which De Palma has always been fascinated with but strip that away and we are left with a mesmerizing study of one man’s obsession and desperation.
With regards to the usual comparisons to Hitchcock, this actually borrows more from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up than anything from his expansive oeuvre, albeit replacing a roving lens with a boom mic. It feels as though some folk would rather his exclusive style die than live on through the art of others and that seems both sad and incredibly unproductive. I’m just thankful that De Palma decided to carry the torch as every nod of reverence is a celebration of what made him great and Blow Out is a stellar motion picture that I’m sure he would have appreciated. One day I’m sure that the penny will drop as this vital filmmaker deserves every last one of the accolades that still seem to pass him by.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
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