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Of all the interesting young directors to emerge from film schools in the late 1960s, Brian De Palma remained the most true to his student-filmmaker roots. While Francis Coppola worked on scripts in the Hollywood mainstream and Martin Scorsese turned out interview features and dark short subjects, De Palma was filming with a young Robert DeNiro (Hi Mom!) and working up elaborate gimmick movies mixing formal cinematic techniques with a sense of improvisation from the French New Wave. De Palma entered the mainstream with the horror film Sisters, a frenetic encyclopedia of Hitchcock thriller situations and visuals. Obsession is screenwriter Paul Schrader's reworking of themes from Vertigo, and the Stephen King adaptation Carrie became De Palma's first solid hit. Before moving on to a wider range of subjects, De Palma would make three more murder thrillers that lean heavily on his adoration of Alfred Hitchcock: Dressed to Kill, Body Double and the paranoid conspiracy show Blow Out.
Like so many De Palma movies, Blow Out can best be described by the elements it cannibalizes from earlier classic thrillers. The story is a familiar paranoid conspiracy about the systematic elimination of witnesses to a political assassination. Philadelphian Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound designer and editor for cheap horror movies. While recording natural sounds one night, he sees a car crash from a bridge into a river and rescues the female passenger, Sally (Nancy Allen). As it turns out, Sally was the illicit date of a married presidential candidate, whose associates want to suppress what could become a Chappaquiddick-like scandal. Jack's recording reveals the sound of a gunshot before the tire blew out on the death car. Synchronizing his audio with images filmed by a private detective (Dennis Franz), Jack realizes that the accident was really an assassination. He enlists Sally to help him gather enough evidence to prove that a major cover-up is underway. Meanwhile, the assassin Burke (John Lithgow) is still at large. He has plans to destroy Jack's evidence and silence Sally, permanently.
Critic Pauline Kael's exuberant over-praise of Brian De Palma never seemed to connect with the director's stylish but essentially hollow exercises in sub-Hitchcockian cleverness and exploitative misogyny. De Palma always showed a knack for experimentation, re-examining visual motifs from the work of masters like Hitchcock and Michael Powell. Blow Out is a true Frankenstein's creation. The idea of an artist discovering a hidden crime through his medium comes directly from Michelangelo's Antonioni's celebrated Blow-Up. De Palma lifts that movie's entire premise almost intact, and even works a variation on its title. The scenes of Jack Terry re-imagining the fatal car crash in his cutting room are stylishly handled, as his recorded sounds of a blustery midnight bring together a Snow White- like vision of frogs croaking, an owl hooting and trees blowing in the night wind. Yet even those scenes come off as a replay from Francis Coppola's The Conversation, where surveillance expert Gene Hackman analyzes taped conversations in search of clues to a murder. De Palma even takes the opportunity to lampoon horror practitioner John Carpenter, through a Halloween- like slasher film-within-a-film. If one takes into account De Palma's increasing reliance on exploitative sex thrills, the horror film parody is also a reflexive statement on the director's own voyeuristic preferences. 1
Blow Out moves from one mechanical suspense set piece to the next, taking care to keep Terry and Sally one step behind the evil conspirators. John Travolta gives a pleasing performance, whether trying to chat up Sally or concentrating on the audio-visual evidence that "develops" before his eyes and ears, much like David Hemmings' photo enlargements in the Antonioni thriller. We can see Jack Terry underestimating the forces against him and not doing a better job of securing his editing room, but we throw our hands up when he doesn't duplicate the all-important film and tape evidence, and allows Sally to walk away with the only copy.
Brian De Palma's reputation for stylishness is based on his slick visual technique. Aided by the recently developed SteadiCam system, his camera tracks and stalks about, creating smooth P.O.V. shots that recreate the dreamlike feel of scenes in Hitchcock classics. We see only a couple of instances of De Palma's favored split-screen technique. When the film requires a burst of action to keep the audience interested, De Palma has Travolta drive his Jeep through a Liberty Bell parade, even though it makes no sense that Jack Terry is not under police guard after endangering all those celebrants.
Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography is stunning, especially in the complicated night exteriors with fireworks going off in the background. We're grateful that Zsigmond abandoned the grossly over-diffused look he used on Obsession. But De Palma still organizes his film along genre exploitation lines. The assassin makes his killings look like the work of a serial strangler, which drags in the seamy diversion of a hooker having sex with a sailor in a train station. De Palma's females are relegated to the status of objects far more than their counterparts in Hitchcock films -- think of Angie Dickinson's interminable shower scene in Dressed to Kill. Nancy Allen's Sally is conceived as a clueless bimbo, and her pre-ordained fate is to become just another victim. Blow Out's final macabre irony goes even farther, reducing Sally to a "snuff sound effect". If the film generated any real interest in its characters this revelation could have been much more than just another clever throwaway.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Blow Out shows off Brian De Palma and Vilmos Zsigmond's stylish thriller to its best advantage, with a sharp and bright transfer at its full Panavision width. The film's active, dynamic soundtrack is also a big plus -- De Palma's audio recordists and designers rose to the challenge of a soundtrack meant to be closely examined by the audience.
Disc producer Susan Arosteguy assembles an interesting collection of extras. Noah Baumbach conducts a long and candid interview with Brian De Palma. Nancy Allen talks about the filming experience (she was very impressed with John Travolta) and inventor-cameraman Garrett Brown takes us into his workshop to demonstrate his SteadiCam and discuss its use. A gallery of Louis Goldman's photos is present along with the film's original trailer. The insert booklet contains a glowing appreciation of De Palma by critic Michael Sragow and the original Pauline Kael New Yorker review that lauds De Palma as a film director for the ages.
Most welcome is a full HD transfer of De Palma's barely-released 1967 feature film Murder à la Mod, a playful concoction that displays many of the director's pet themes already fully developed. De Palma repeats a major scene from multiple points of view as in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing and mines the voyeuristic appeal of film as if directing a Valentine to Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. The fetishistic details of his murder scenes pre-echo the Italian giallo thrillers of Dario Argento. Murder à la Mod comes off as a smug cinematic jest, a quality that the undeniably talented Brian De Palma has never really shaken.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Blow Out Blu-ray rates:
1. In general De Palma sketches an accurate picture of work on a low-budget movie, except that both Co-Ed Massacre and Jack Terry's sound job for it would seem to be far too sophisticated. Surprisingly, De Palma sees Terry working on low-quality 16mm magnetic audio for the horror film. He also makes big grease pencil marks on the emulsion side of the mag stock, which would almost immediately coat the playback head and smear down the film, ruining the audio. The idea that Terry could clip photos out of a magazine to recreate a nearly perfectly registered frame sequence of the car crash is certainly dramatic, but technically laughable. We can excuse the unrealistic 'scream' auditions with a series of untalented actresses because they function as a comedic running gag.
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T'was Ever Thus.