Starting out with a movie within a movie, dropped right into action that isn’t the actual movie, Brian De Palma is one to repeat the idea that film isn’t glamorous. As in the openings of De Palma’s later films Body Double or Femme Fatale, the more interesting story isn’t the movie the characters are involved with. Blow Out might be the consensus pick for the best use of De Palma’s tendencies (especially the idiot men at the center of his movies of sleaze and conspiracy), and with good reason. Jack Terry (John Travolta, in my favorite of his roles) is a sound designer working in post-production for low-budget horror movies. (From what we see, his new film project mirrors something like Black Christmas or Peeping Tom). On one night, Jack serendipitously captures audio evidence of an assassination involving a presidential hopeful. Jack rescues Sally Bedina (Nancy Allen), a young woman involved in a car crash, and together they uncover what really happened: the tire was actually shot out.
Blow Out gets to the idea of two nightmares: being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and everything from your work being erased. The idea that Jack is in over his head feels inherent to his work, which requires organization; sound design is meant to be seamless, and Jack being visible to the conspiracy easily sets off the inciting incident. As the plot thickens, it becomes about competence and proving something to people who want to believe something else. Working in sound design requires an exact ear for the right sound, which plays into the frustration and paranoia present throughout. Jack is consistently undervalued in his quest to prove that there is something wrong here, by both police and the media. But what changes if he is believed?
In its craft alone, Blow Out is the perfect thriller in every way. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, as always, gives the movie such a distinct look, and frequent De Palma collaborators composer Pino Donaggio and editor Paul Hirsch return to make my favorite of his films. Blow Out lifts this general conceit of a below-the-line crew member witnessing a murder from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, which focuses on a photographer instead of a sound designer. The story works incredibly well in both films, even going so far as to draw inspiration from the thrillers of Hitchcock or Dario Argento. All these references are blatant, but artfully done to a point where it feels new and exciting rather than pointless. (It also isn’t too tied down to being a political thriller, even with its finger on the pulse of the attempted Reagan assassination and Watergate scandal). De Palma crafts something radical through these references, choosing to view America as something untrustworthy and dangerous. In fact, to psychoanalyze him, De Palma must relate to Jack as someone constantly at war with everyone to communicate what he sees. He was never the face of his generation of filmmakers, always in the background of pictures hanging out with contemporaries like Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg. He had many more troubled productions, but still made movies like nobody else did.
John Travolta was on a roll coming into 1981. Saturday Night Fever and Grease had become major ’70s hits, and he previously worked with De Palma in 1976 with Carrie. Urban Cowboy had come out just the year before, proving his growth as an actor. I love what Pauline Kael had to say about Travolta’s presence in her review: “And Travolta, who appeared to have lost his way after Saturday Night Fever, makes his own leap—right back to the top, where he belongs. Playing an adult (his first), and an intelligent one, he has a vibrating physical sensitivity like that of the very young Brando. Travolta—twenty-seven now—finally has a role that allows him to discard his teenage strutting and his slobby accents.” There is something he brings to Jack that was perfect for where he was as an actor, and never has to work to feel charismatic. Travolta, in his best roles, has always been a great listener. We see that ability truly blossom in Blow Out.
dir. Brian De Palma
Screens Tuesday, 3/29, 7:30PM @ Somerville Theatre
Part of the ongoing series FACE/OFF: Travolta/Cage (double feature w/ Moonstruck!)