Remembering ‘Blow Out’

Posted by · 7:23 pm · April 10th, 2009

Blow OutThe name Brian De Palma first came to me when I saw a screening of the director’s new film “Phantom of the Paradise,” a high energy rock and roll fantasy based loosely on the classic “Phantom of the Opera” story. The film was a knockout, with a marvelous score by Paul Williams that should have earned the attention of the Academy for the many outstanding songs within.

Shortly thereafter I saw a De Palma double feature: “Carrie” and “Obsession,” the former a superb adaptation of the Stephen King novel that earned Oscar nods for lead and supporting actress, while the second was a Hitckcockian thriller with a great musical score. The Hitchcock homage continued with “Dressed to Kill,” a superbly shot thriller that gave Michael Caine one of his most bizarre, yet finest roles. Sexy and terrifying, the film was a huge hit with critics and audiences in the summer of 1980.

One year later De Palma gave us his masterpiece, a moody noir with John Travolta in his first role as an adult. Here we had a director at the top of his game and an actor made into a superstar with his previous films, “Saturday Night Fever,” “Grease” and “Urban Cowboy.” Travolta was hungry, looking for the role that would bring him greater attention as an actor.

People forget Travolta was nominated for an Oscar for “Fever” and won the National Society of Film Critics Award for the performance, which launched his career. His one career fumble, at that time, was the goofy love story “Moment by Moment” with Lily Tomlin that left everyone who saw the film puzzled as to why it was ever made. In De Palma, the actor had a director who understood cinema, who adored actors and allowed them their freedom while gently guiding them towards his vision of the film. Travolta could not have been in better hands.

“Blow Out” was also an homage of sorts to “Blow-Up,” the outstanding 1966 film from Michelangelo Antonioni. Though this time sound and a moving image would become the obsession of the hero.

As Jack Terry, Travolta portrays a sound man for low grade horror films, the sort of pictures a naughty Roger Corman might make. He likes his job and seems to be good at at, using his microphone like a maestro conducting the sounds around him, hoping to create art with them. Watch the manner in which Travolta holds the mic, as though he has been doing it for years. There is real confidence in this performance, a lived-in quality that he had not shown before.

Jack Terry is a wounded character, a man devastated by something that happened in his past, which we later learn was a sting operation that went horribly wrong. Terry has buried himself in his work to escape his demons and one night, he finds new ones. He records, quite by accident, the assassination of a governor. With haunting overtones of Ted Kennedy and the scandal that nearly ruined him, the film throws us into a very different type of film within seconds.

John Lithgow plays the hitman with icy brilliance, while Nancy Allen (De Palma’s wife at the time) gives a strong performance as a young escort caught up in the tangled web.

Pauline Kael hailed Travolta’s performance as one of the finest pieces of acting since young Brando. Other critics recognized the brilliance of his work and celebrated the performance in print as well. De Palma’s direction of the picture is splendid, creating unbearable tension with his use of sound, but having the courage of all great directors to allow his actor to carry the film.

“Blow Out” was released in the summer in 1981, going toe-to-toe with blockbusters such as “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Superman II” and “Arthur” and really having no chance against such heavyweights. Sadly the film flopped but became something of a cult classic on video in the very early years of home entertainment. I saw the film again just yesterday and it remains one of the finest films of 1981. It certainly should have been nominated for Oscars across the board. How could the Academy ignore it?

It would be 13 years before John Travolta would be so challenged by a role again. In fact, it was his performance in “Blow Out” that led Quentin Tarantino to cast him in “Pulp Fiction.” De Palma continued to make movies, some very good ones including “The Untouchables” and “Casualties of War,” as well as a few turkeys that are better left unmentioned. But back in 1981 he got it all right with one of the cinema’s great political thrillers and a knockout performance from an icon looking to be a great actor.

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6 responses so far

  • 1 4-11-2009 at 4:25 pm

    Anonymous said...

    Foote, you’re an idiot. I saw ‘Blowout’ this summer and it was terrible. Yes, Lithgow was cold, but it’s only because there is no explanation about the extent of his plans, there’s almost no logic behind it. And you think Nancy Allen gave a strong performance? I’m sure she’s usually a fine actress, but she chose the most annoying voice pitch EVER for the role, and the character was written extremely poorly. To the critics who complain that characters in movies are too stupid these days, I contend that Ms. Allen’s character spurred the trend. I wanted her to die the whole time, and when the story gets to that point, it screws it up with an over-the-top climax. Why don’t you get off the bandwagon for a change and just realize ‘Blow Out’ sucked ass.

  • 2 4-11-2009 at 5:06 pm

    ron said...

    Ignore this other idiot,”Blowout” was an awesome movie. He obviously has no taste whatsoever.

  • 3 4-11-2009 at 9:23 pm

    Chad said...

    I’ve been curious to see this for a while but I hate De Palma’s work, old and new and there’s no way it can hold a candle to Blow-Up.

  • 4 4-12-2009 at 3:30 am

    Dean said...

    I think you’re right on target with this assessment; Pauline Kael loved this movie, I think more than any other De Palma film (she was his chief champion). This was the finale of an incredible run of movies that included PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, CARRIE, and DRESSED TO KILL, and BLOW OUT is arguably the best of the bunch. Great performances, amazing sound/editing/widescreen photography, and except for a badly-placed disco track during a chase scene, a terrific Pino Donaggio score. I think its mesmerising, terrifying, tense, and heartbreaking. Love how De Palma managed to reference the colors red, white and blue in almost every shot leading to the 4th of July climax!

  • 5 4-12-2009 at 6:12 am

    John H. Foote said...

    Anonymous — well I might be an idiot but I am one idiot with the guts to sign my name to my work and stand by it — you attack Allen for her “voice pitch”, her fucking “VOICE PITCH”???? So everyone who walks the planet has a perfect voice do they??? She chose to take a risk, and for the character, the risk was spot on. No explanation for Lithgow’s actions? Where you watching the friggin’ movie dude?? He tells the audience and his employers precisely what he is going to do to divert attention away from the assassination and the subsequent killing of Allen (which he knows he must do) — just so you get it, because I now am aware of how closely you watch films, he is killing women who look like her to make it look like a serial killer is loose killing like women — that way when she gets killed, less attention will be given to her case and there will be no way (he hopes) to connect her to the killing of the governer — got it???? And for the record, the moment someone calls me a name, like oh shall we say…idiot…they became irrelevant to me in every way — bandwagon??? Not sure I have ridden one…

  • 6 4-12-2009 at 11:38 am

    BurmaShave said...

    Any conversation about DePalma that does not mention the bizarre, overblown, amazing and seminal SCARFACE is highly suspect.

    Thank you for bringing attention to this film though. It really is great.