Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) is a hidden gem of cinema about a movie sound mixer who inadvertently records the proof necessary to solve a crime while putting his own life in grave jeopardy. In the documentary De Palma (2016), the director confirmed that the production for Blow Out was originally at a low budget of $6 million and later increased to $20 million. He then explained how he tried out a Steadicam for the first time on Blow Out. The sound mixer, Jack (John Travolta) records the key sounds to solving the murder. Brian De Palma’s Blow Out was clearly inspired with variating elements of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966), an Italian film about a fashion photographer putting pictures together to solve a mystery, and Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) about a security surveillance worker who records the audio of a couple he’s been hired to spy on resulting in his paranoid conspiracy theory of a murder. “In ‘Blow Up’, you’re blowing up a picture. In ‘The Conversation’, you’re trying to read through all the ambient sounds to figure out what the conversation is. This was something particularly cinematic. You actually see how you sync something up which is a clue to the mystery.” Brian De Palma said, explaining how he used the syncing of sound, an integral part of the filmmaking process, within the narrative of his screenplay, resulting in the feeling of witnessing a ‘movie within a movie’ or a ‘dream within a dream’. Blow Out was a box office disaster. According to Brian De Palma, nobody saw the movie until it was finished. The executives were appalled by the film. The master of mystery and suspense went on to explain that many of his films were critical disasters at the time and he claimed Blow Out was the biggest. However, once the noise surrounding a film dissipates, one can appreciate the aesthetic qualities of it in relation to its overall theme, and just because a film isn’t favorite by critics and audiences alike, when its released, that doesn’t necessarily imply the film won’t find its audience in the near or distant future. Brian De Palma’s career is the perfect example of that. Blow Out is a gem and De Palma admitted that until this day, John Travolta’s performance moves him emotionally every time he watches the ending.
In the obscene opening images of Blow Out, we see a point-of-view of someone wielding a knife while spying on college girls engaging in sexual activity in their dorm rooms and the privacy of their showers. This perverted perspective slowly reveals that it’s actually a slasher/pornography movie being worked on in a sound studio during its post-production phase as we meet Jack (John Travolta), a movie sound recordist sitting in a dubbing theater, and laughing at the poor acting quality of the female character in the shower, screaming at the sight of a murderer. Her scream is a joke to Jack. The ending image of Blow Out comes full circle and provides an intensely overwhelming significance, contrary to what appeared to be amusing throughout the story. Once we reach the film’s climax, having gone through everything with Jack, the film’s heartbreaking hero, it staggers us when we interpret the final scream dubbed over the actresses voice. Jack’s initial objective in Blow Out of finding a convincing scream effect to dub into the slasher film in seems like a gag to us in the audience; we laugh with amusement at the concept. Even in the middle of the film, when Jack disapproves of new actresses attempting to portray realistic screams, comes off a satire. But in the ending, what was thought of as mockery and parody, is now a tragedy, when Jack approves of the real-life scream he can’t bare to hear. “It’s a good scream. Good scream.” He says, with tear-filled eyes. What was initially deemed laughable ultimately becomes heartbreaking. We were amused by the concept of finding an accurate scream, now we’re devastated by it, because the scream ironically belongs to Sally (Nancy Allen), the make-up artist and part-time playmate, who displays idealist traits within her fantasist personality, but its her angelic demeanor that meshes perfectly with Jack’s tranquil tone of voice as the two become fond of one another. Sally has superficial qualities that are melded with depth and complexity which makes us admire her, while we marvel whether or not she’s playing dumb, being smarter than she appears. Jack is sharp-witted, but like the character of Harry (Gene Hackman) in The Conversation, he develops paranoia and begins to see through the deceptions of the political world around him.
The arrangement of the visual theme, cinematography, sound design, musical composition and narrative storytelling is put into direction masterfully by Brian De Palma. It’s as if Blow Out is his operatic masterpiece, holding a wand by creating magic or conducting an orchestra in concert. All the elements of the film are polished with grace and splendor. The reoccurring color hues of red, white and blue, appear as emblems representing the political corruption that exists in the film’s narrative. Jack wears a blue woven button-up as he sits inside the motel room, listening to the recording of the gunshot, with red lights illuminating him from the city street at night. In the morning, when Sally wakes up, the day light reveals the red and blue lined designs on the wallpaper over a solid white backdrop. The lamp on the bedside table is red. These patriotic colors are supplemental to the political thriller subtype of the film. The cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond (The Deer Hunter), draped the film with patriotic colors so much that upon the film’s climax with a Liberty Parade on the 4th of July, Jack hurries to catch the film’s villain in slow-motion while fireworks spark the night sky as he captures the villain, with the great American flag swathed massively behind him in stars and stripes, in conjunction with the blood on Jack’s hands from a murdered Sally, laying on the ground. These are examples of the symbolism ever-present throughout the film which relate to political corruption and media cover-ups.
Blow Out is not a genre film but possesses a concoction of distinctive categories and blends them together like a painting. Jack is a movie sound recorder working on a slasher film, Manny (Dennis Franz) is the photographer who captures pictures of the accident, Sally is a make-up artist and a playmate of the Pennsylvania Governor who plans to run for President of the United States and gets assassinated. Jack’s dream world of moviemaking meets the reality of political corruption; Hollywood meets Washington. Jack produces sound affects for slasher movies and becomes involved in a real-life scenario of horror with Burke (John Lithgow), the real-life killer. It’s us, in the audience, who experience this dream within a dream feeling as Brian de Palma keeps our minds intensified throughout the progression of the story by employing an assortment of aesthetic techniques. The sequence where Jack takes a sedated Sally to a motel as he drives through the night has so much depth in its cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, who uses layers that makes this scene hypnotizing: the camera is mounted on the hood on the vehicle’s exterior as we hear the intimacy of Jack and Sally’s dialogue from the moving car’s interior while hard rain pours down on the windshield with wipers rotating perpetually and through the reflection of the windshield we see a train travelling above them as the city street lights bathes them in an alarming red. It’s one fixed-shot that exudes the gravity, passion and commotion of the situation and it’s merely John Travolta behind the wheel and Nancy Allen riding shotgun. This sequence represents why motion pictures are the epitome of all arts.
The realist, fantasist and tragic components of this film are immaculately bonded together. Brian De Palma’s earlier films don’t combine narrative depth with stunning imagery and captivating sound while contrasting themes of satire and tragedy as he so brilliantly does in his 14th feature film, Blow Out. The rhythmic combination of these elements are entrancing. The crisp images of daytime with Philadelphia as a backdrop, the use of slow-motion and extreme close-ups, the various zooms providing the ‘spied-on’ effect of paranoia, the use of the split diopter that allows the camera lens to simultaneously focus on two planes of information in the background juxtaposed with the foreground, and the ultimate 360 degree dolly-shot, where we sense Jack’s isolation in his world of sound as the camera slowly pans around the room with white noise while he goes through his recordings in paranoia, are reasons why this film is De Palma’s masterpiece. The character of Jack is a variation of Harry Caul in the ending of The Conversation, when he rips apart his entire apartment unit, looking for the wiretap that is hidden somewhere, putting him under surveillance. Harry sits maddened, in his own mess and misery the same way Jack sits amid all the sound reels sporadic in his workplace. Jack learns the same thing Harry does, that nothing is what it seems, and that his expertise will not solve any crimes or save anyone’s life. The corruption and scandals of politics and the fake news reported by the media is an illusion. Reality is just as make-believe like the movies he records sound for. Jack begins to see through everything in his own life, the same way he did in his own work; real life intersecting with filmmaking.
“You’ve always got to realize that you’re being criticized against the fashion of the day. And when the fashion changes, everybody forgets that.” De Palma said, justifiying his own career in filmmaking with veracity. The critical and societal noise upon a release of a film needs to dissipate in order to draw an accurate criticism of it. Brian De Palma’s filmmaking career serves as the perfect example. Whether by accident or intention, certain filmmakers make movies that are timeless; the subject matter ends up living on for ages. Others make films that pertain relevance to the time period it was released. “Let’s try to make one thing clear in director’s careers; we don’t plan them out. We happen to be working on one thing, and then another thing happens, but then gets delayed, and we do the thing, we can do, at that time.” De Palma said, which led him to direct a drug smuggling themed Scarface (1983) with Al Pacino and the music video for the classic song, “Dancing in the Dark”, by Bruce Springsteen in 1984, after the release of Blow Out in 1981. Scarface miraculously found its audience over two decades after its release and became a classic. As for Blow Out, though it wasn’t a critical or box office success upon its release, after nearly forty years, I consider to be Brian De Palma’s masterpiece because of its magnificent implementation of Mise-en-scene; French for the arrangement of cinematography, music, sound, acting, writing and directing. Especially the musical score, which connotates an undertow with the relationship between Jack and Sally. Every category is crafted to perfection resulting in a rhythmic and hypnotic film.