Why I Love… #49: Blow Out

Jack Terry (John Travolta) unwittingly records a crime disguised as a terrible accident.
Jack Terry (John Travolta) unwittingly records a crime disguised as a terrible accident.

Year: 1981

Director: Brian De Palma

Stars: John Travolta (Jack Terry), Nancy Allen (Sally), John Lithgow (Burke), Dennis Franz (Manny Karp), John Aquino (Det. Mackay)

Genre: Thriller

Generally speaking, my rule of thumb with this series has been to only pick from movies I’ve watched again and again, the ones that stand up to scrutiny, that ask me back, that I enjoy losing a couple of hours to. Basically, the ones that last. I’m bucking the trend with this entry however, because I only saw Blow Out yesterday. However, the experience was sheer joy. You know when you see a movie and you just click with it, and you know immediately that this is going to be one of those movies for you? Coming away from Blow Out the first time I knew that this was the best thing I’ve seen all year, and it’s 32 years old as I write this. It’s going to be one of those movies for me.

Blow Out‘s stock has risen over the years since the lukewarm reception on its release. Now revered as a classic of its era, it’s been on my must-see list for quite some time. Finally getting to it, I was immediately struck by how modern a movie it feels. Sure, it’s grounded in a time and a place, with the technological tropes of the early 80’s (not to mention some of the attitudes – Travolta wandering a hospital smoking a cigarette), but the vitality of De Palma’s direction was immediately appealing. This is a movie overtly concerned with aesthetics, one not afraid to draw attention to its own showmanship. In some cases directorial grandstanding can make a film suffer (De Palma’s outspoken fan Quentin Tarantino is prone to such gaffs), but in the case of Blow Out they seem entirely fitting. Why? Because this is, in part, a film about film.

Opening with a virtuoso homage to slasher and exploitation movies – which actually looks like it would be a fun flick itself – De Palma reveals we’re actually in a film within a film. Cutting abruptly from his gaudy shower scene (a nod to Hitchcock – a clear influence on this picture), the camera finally rests on Jack Terry, sound man on a trashy B-picture called Coed Frenzy. Blow Out never quite seems to fully recover from this fake out. Jack’s world works on the rules of a movie. Reality is just as capable of fantastic plot twists. Pulp trappings such as serial killers and car chases are everyday happenstance. 

De Palma evokes the feeling that Blow Out‘s ‘real world’ is just another movie with such tricks as split screen, roaming long takes, slow motion and, in the film’s climax, a music video sense of heightened reality. Life imitates art. The two are inseparable. As audience members we’re all versed in cinematic language to the degree that we now see our lives as our own movies. We’re living our own director’s cut. Jack Terry is living his movie – and it’s an enthralling cross-genre mix of the political thriller, the slasher, delicious film noir and the romantic tragedy. Blow Out is as ‘new’ and ‘post-modern’ as anything Wes Craven, the Coens or Tarantino have put their name to.

All of which would be all well and good if the film didn’t hook the audience emotionally. Fortunately, it does. John Travolta is something of a revelation here, busting out of his Saturday Night Fever/Grease persona to do something more credible, more complex. Jack Terry is not a clean-cut hero. He can be arrogant and rude; a cocky conspiracy theorist who just happens to be right. His rough edges are smoothed by Nancy Allen’s naive Sally. And whilst Blow Out doesn’t overplay its romantic element, by Jack’s final life-or-death dash to save Sally’s life the viewer feels the stakes are personal. Sally is not just another potential victim. She matters to Jack and matters to us. Allen tips close to cloying with her ditzy portrayal, but has such a strange innocence about her that it all kind of works. Her screen charisma – and the chemistry between her and Travolta – seals the deal.

Jack’s obsessive reconstruction of a political assassination that he just happens to have recorded evokes the compulsive, maniacal central figures of many of Hitchcock’s movies, as well as Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul in Francis Ford Coppola’s similarly themed The Conversation (a guaranteed future addition to this series). The viewer is likely to know one or all of these, and so recognises Jack as a character ‘type’. This again folds into the sensation that the movies have become real. That we’re all just living stereotypes existing in intersecting plots.

Elevating everything is De Palma’s sense of maximalism. Why can’t you have a serial killer in a political thriller? Why not a car careering through a patriotic parade? And speaking of serial killers, how good is John Lithgow here? He’s always been a dependable bad guy, but as Burke the political assassin only too happy to ‘pretend’ to be a psychopath to cover his tracks… he plays big and nails it. Again, it’s heightened. Again, it’s larger than life and all the more entertaining for it.

Blow Out feels like a movie striving to be as entertaining as it possibly can be, one that doesn’t care how lascivious it’s thrills are. It can be dark, funny, sexy – occasionally all at once. A pop culture collage. Like a dirty tabloid story you keep reading, despite yourself. That it achieves this and also packs an emotional punch in its final moments is a particular achievement. It appears to be all artifice, but, like a car swerving off of a bridge due to a tyre blow out, not everything is as it seems. By engaging his audience in every way possible, De Palma commands their attention and takes them on a journey.

You can feel De Palma behind the camera with his preoccupation for God’s eye shots. He’s there, looking down at his characters, pulling their strings. Pulling ours. It’s masterful.

…did I mention that I took a shine to this movie?

I’ve watched it again today in order to write this. To pick out details. It’s been as much of a pleasure the second time as the first, and I feel comfortable that it will continue to reward over the years to come. Don’t you just love it when a movie reaches out and grabs you like that…?

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