Review by Gordon Justesen
Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz
Director: Brian De Palma
Audio: DTS HD 2.0
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Features: See Review
Length: 108 Minutes
Release Date: April 26, 2011
“It's a good scream.”
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 pot-boiling 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.
Most of De Palma's films from the late 70s/early 80s never got a good break on DVD. But when Blow Out finally made it onto the format in 2001, I was stunned by the impressive quality that I may have given it a full four star rating in the video department. Looking back, I think I was just being kind because I was relieved to see that one of the director's greatest achievements hadn't been butchered by either a non-anamorphic presentation or an overdose of video grain.
But now that Blow Out has finally made it to Blu-ray courtesy of the wonderful people at Criterion, just go ahead and forget that a DVD version ever existed because THIS is the best presentation you will ever experience this film in, next to a theatrical print of course. De Palma himself supervised this HD transfer, which meant that many instances of dirt, scratches and so forth were gotten rid of. So you can probably imagine my astounding reaction to this beautiful piece of HD video. The 1080p gives this 1981 release a look that I didn't think was possible. To sum it up, De Palma's one of a kind filmmaking techniques are presented here in a way that will leave you awe-struck, especially the revolving camera scene in Travolta's studio. The many split-screen sequences also look more astonishing than ever, and that's what I was most looking forward to in this presentation. Colors are magnificent to gaze upon, and the image detail is spectacular from beginning to end! Some instances of grain have been kept in the frame, as intended to keep the grittiness of the film intact. In short, this is a visual wonder that a true De Palma fan will thoroughly appreciate!
As with the incredible video quality, Criterion has delivered such a remarkable upgrade in the audio department that, again, you can forget the original DVD ever existed! The DTS HD 2.0 mix pulls you into the film right at the very beginning. Sound plays a key role in this film, and pivotal moments of the film involving the recording of the assassination and Jack putting everything together from playing the recording over and over result in some powerful payoff in the lossless audio. The wonderful music score by Pino Donaggio sounds more exciting than ever before, and the countless individual moments of classic De Palma feel even more intense as if you were watching it for the first time! And again, the split-screen sequences result in some nice sound performance on the side channels.
And if there was ever a great reason to forget about the initial DVD release, it's the truly spectacular upgrade Criterion has given to the supplement section. If you're familiar with De Palma, you know he doesn't do commentary tracks. But that hardly matters here because what we get more than makes up for that. We get an hour long video interview with De Palma conducted by fellow filmmaker Noah Baumbach, which is a rich and deeply revealing piece about the making of the film, and if you're a true De Palma fan as I am, you are in for a real treat! And if that wasn't enough, we are also treated to one of De Palma's first short features, titled “Murder a la Mod”, shot in black and white and features the director hinting at the many filmmaking trademarks we would come to love and appreciate! We also get a new video interview with co-star Nancy Allen (who I must say is looking really good for her age), which runs about 25 minutes. Next up is a video interview with cameraman Garrett Brown, the inventor of the “steadicam”, who comments on the many steadicam shots in the film. There's also an On Set Photo Gallery from photographer Louis Goldman and the Original Theatrical Trailer!
Lastly, as with all great Criterion releases, there's a fantastic insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Michael Sragow, as well as critic Pauline Kael's original review of the film from The New Yorker.
Brian De Palma's Blow Out remains a piece of pure suspense and cinematic brilliance. The fact that this film and Criterion were able to cross paths is a cause for celebration, and the Blu-ray release is something that I, personally, will always treasure for years to come! Fully and beautifully restored in the format it should only be seen in, this is a pure must have for both De Palma fans and disc collectors alike!