In the saga of paranoid artists who may or may not have witnessed a murder, first there was Rear Window, then there was Blowup, then The Conversation, and finally there was De Palma’s Blow Out. De Palma offers the latest installment in this loosely related saga, and it’s just as good as the rest of them. He takes the political conspiracy angle from The Conversation, and wraps it up in an artistic crisis like Blowup, and a love story reminiscent of Rear Window. De Palma, king of the film references, makes this last fourth a perfect culmination and the most movie oriented of the bunch.
We know the story by now. Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound effects guy for B horror pictures in Philadelphia. One night he is out in the park trying to get some effects for a movie he’s working on, when he witnesses a car accident. Noticing there are people in danger, he is able to dive in the water and rescue the woman in the car, Sally (Nancy Allen). The man, a presidential hopeful, dies and the tragedy is labelled as a freak accident. But all is not as it seems as Jack is sure the car didn’t just get a blow out, but the tire was shot out in an assassination. Nobody believes him except maybe Sally, and his attempts to prove his case with his sound effect recordings is constantly thwarted by a mysterious killer (John Lithgow).
There are constant shout outs to other movies here. The film starts with the horror film Jack is working on, which happens to feature a woman getting stabbed in the shower (Psycho). His job is to find the perfect scream to go with it, which is used for tragic effect by the end of the movie. Blowup is mirrored several times, not just in the title. In the park, there are a couple shots of wind blowing through the trees, creating a dreamlike quality just like in the earlier film. There is also a similar central sequence in which Jack synchronizes his sounds with film taken by another bystander that recalls the similar one in Blowup. That’s not to say the movie is a carbon copy of those that proceeded it, in fact I would say the constant film references work better here than in other De Palma films (Carlito’s Way comes to mind). De Palma also references himself in a way (or would later, I suppose, this being the earliest De Palma I’ve seen) by setting part of the finale in a train station (The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way) and using the split screen effect for which he is widely known to create an uncertain sense of identity throughout the film.
There is one scene that greatly confused me, though I think the ending of The Conversation might have been an inspiration. In that film, the camera betrays the main character, treating him just as it treats the rest of the room. That happened again here, though it made less sense to me because De Palma put it in the middle of the movie. Here, Travolta runs around his studio trying to figure out what happened to all of his tapes, and the camera just circles around the room at a different rate. You see him do several significant actions, but the camera is not outwardly concerned with what he’s doing. I was really confused about why this would be here, though maybe I shouldn’t be because getting his tapes stolen might count as technology turning on him I suppose. I was really confused by it during the film and thought it went on a bit too long, even though it was pretty cool looking.
The whole film takes place during a fictitious liberty bell celebration, which offers De Palma and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and excuse to bathe the film is red and blue light. It gives the film almost a sleazy look at some points, much like the B movies Terry works on. Other times, it seems more hallucinatory or surreal. Either way, it also gives the opportunity to comment on post-Vietnam/Watergate America and the ensuing malaise. The whole film is shot really well, even if I was confused by that one part. Sometimes De Palma and his lurid color choices annoy me a lot but I liked it here and thought it worked really well. ( I also love the twisted reference to Patton in the picture below.)
The only other thing about this movie that didn’t sit as well with me was how abruptly it ended. One of the reviews I linked to at the bottom (think it was the Times’) said that if you’re paying too much attention to the story you’re missing the point, but nevertheless a lot of things don’t get wrapped up and I was sort of expecting more of them to. Not even that, I was just expecting the film to be a bit longer I guess. I did watch it in two segments, I suppose, but it seemed like some story lines just got cut short, specifically the relationship between Sally and Jack and also we never really find out what the deal with John Lithgow is but that adds to his menace probably.
All in all, Blow Out is a near perfect film if you ask me. Some things about it caught me off guard, but all in all I think that just means I’ll need to rewatch it at some point, which I’m happy to do. I liked how it tied in with the other films dealing with the same story, which is crucial because there’s no way De Palma couldn’t have had those films in mind while making this one. It does a good job of interacting with them without being a straight rip off. So in the end, I’ll need to give Blow Out another viewing, which I’m more than happy to do.
“That’s a terrible scream. Jack, what cat did you have to strangle to get that?”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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