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BLOW OUT

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz
Director: Brian De Palma
Audio: Dolby Surround, Spanish Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1, Standard 1.33:1
Studio: MGM
Features: Theatrical Trailer
Length: 108 Minutes
Release Date: August 28, 2001

Film ****

One hasn’t experienced a truly great piece of suspenseful and technical filmmaking until they experience Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, which I will always remember as the director’s first true masterpiece. Here’s a film that does what so many movies today attempt to pull off, which is blending together a ravishingly visual and pure cinematic style, and at the same time manages to tell a remarkably suspenseful plot. There’s no doubt that De Palma, who also wrote the screenplay, got inspiration for this political thriller from the JFK assassination, most specifically the infamous Zapruder home movie. At the center of Blow Out is a similar scenario, in which an ordinary civilian is drawn into a murderous conspiracy concerning a political figure.

Jack Terri (John Travolta) is a man of sound. He’s a sound effects coordinator for a movie studio in Philadelphia that specializes mostly in schlock B movies. Late one night, while he is recording night sounds on a bridge, Jack records and witnesses a sudden and supposed car accident. The car has a blowout, and immediately plunges into the river. Jack jumps in, rescues a woman from the backseat, but is unable to save the driver. While recovering, as well as being questioned by cops at a nearby hospital, Jack discovers that the driver of the car was a potential presidential candidate, and the woman, named Sally (Nancy Allen), whose live Jack saved, was the candidate’s mistress.

The police declare the incident was indeed accidental, but Jack believes otherwise. After carefully and repeatedly reviewing the recording, Jack is seriously convinced that just before the blowout, he can hear a gunshot, which also convinces him that the accident was no accident at all, but an intended act of murder. If that wasn’t enough, Jack discovers that Sally was involved in a blackmail scheme against the candidate, to which a slimy private investigator (Dennis Franz) is credited with.  As Jack keeps digging deeper and deeper into a major cover up, a sinister hit man named Burke (John Lithgow) is hot on his, and Sally’s, trail. Burke is a character much in the spirit of The Jackal in terms of how he maneuvers from one disguise to another, and becoming nearly undetectable by any means.

All of the terrific gimmicks from De Palma’s bold world of movie making can be seen in Blow Out, and they serve the story with absolute brilliance. Split-screens are used, even in small scenes such as the opening credit scene in Jack’s laboratory, showing him labeling specific sounds on one side of the screen, while showing television news footage on the other side. The scene that stands out the most, other than the potboiling climax, is the scene in Jack’s lab that is done in one take, with the camera circling around the lab, until Jack discovers something devastating about his recording. And the climax, which takes place during a liberty parade and festival, is simply stunning. Jack straps Sally with a wire and unknowingly uses her as a pawn in a deadly set up by Burke. Fans of the Hitchcock classics North by Northwest and Strangers on a Train should be dazzled by the visual strategies De Palma thoughtfully applies, using crowded areas as set pieces for mind blowing chase scenes. The use of slow motion for the final action scene is an amazing moment not just for the movie, but also for De Palma as director.

For John Travolta, this was perhaps his last greatest achievement in his pre-Pulp Fiction days. His performance is equal to the countless riveting performances he’s delivered since his 90s comeback, and Blow Out remains one of the actor’s finest films to date. The movie also gets some nice work from Nancy Allen and John Lithgow, who also played the villain in another De Palma movie, Obsession.

The movie didn’t find its audience upon release in 1981, but it did receive some good critical acclaim, and has since gone on to find its audience in home video, and now thankfully, DVD. It’s the quintessential De Palma movie, and one of the director’s three great movies.

Video ****

Of the three titles that MGM is releasing, the other two being Dressed to Kill and Carrie, I was skeptical when I saw that this was the only disc that was issued in a double sided format, including both the widescreen and full screen versions of the movie. Also, none of De Palma’s early films have faired very well in the video department. Boy, did this disc ever exceed my then very low expectations. The video job on Blow Out is remarkably done, with an anamorphic presentation to die for. Picture is thoroughly clear and sharp, and surprisingly doesn’t show one single instance of flaws in any moment of presentation. A note to the wise, just watch the widescreen version, which I advise for any DVD movie, but if you watch a Brian De Palma movie in standard format, you’ll be missing about 75% of the movie, literally.

Audio ***1/2

This audio job on Blow Out also exceeded my expectations, because you never quite know what to expect from the performance of a twenty-year-old movie, especially when the audio format is only in 2.0 surround. However, the sound quality is of sheer perfection, with speakers brought to life, most especially with the split-screen sequences, where upon which the left speaker capturing action on the left image, and the right speaker capturing the action on the right one.

Features *

Only a theatrical trailer, which seems questionable since MGM loaded the goods on both Dressed to Kill and Carrie, but failed to acknowledge Blow Out with the same level of features.

Summary:

Blow Out is pure cinematic brilliance that is now restored to the format that it should only be seen in, as the case is with any of this masterful director’s films.