Director Brian De Palma’s classic 1981 conspiracy thriller Blow Out is not just a marvellously realised exercise in rising paranoia, but also a stylishly twisted example of one of Hollywood’s masters of suspense at the height of his powers.
John Travolta stars as Jack Terry, a technician who does sound-effects for low budget horror movies. One night whilst out recording noises for a film he’s working on, Jack witnesses a car crash into a local river, recording the accident on his tape recorder. Jumping into the river he manages to rescue a girl, Sally (Nancy Allen), from the car and take her to hospital. Only after the police and the PA to a local politician who was driving the car and died in the accident, turn up and warn him to forget about everything that has happened, does Jack realise that there may be more to the incident than first appeared. Playing back his recordings when he gets home Jack discovers something shocking which puts both his and Sally’s lives in danger, and sets them on a collision course with someone who will stop at nothing to silence them, permanently.
De Palma has always had a knack of bringing out the best in those he works with. Also, like many directors, he frequently uses the talents of the same, small group of actors. By the late 1970’s he was already well established having made such films as the cult horror Sisters (1973) with Margot Kidder. However it was his startling interpretation of Stephen King’s chiller Carrie (1976) that brought him to the wider public’s attention, as well as introducing him to a number of actors with whom he would work with again during the coming years. From that film Amy Irving went on to feature in De Palma’s telekinetic shocker The Fury (1978), whilst the director’s then-wife Nancy Allen would appear with Michael Caine in the thriller Dressed To Kill (1980).
It is Blow Out though, again starring Allen, this time with Carrie co-star Travolta, which stands out in the memory for its sense of seeping unease. Building slowly from a disarmingly ‘cheesy’ opening during the editing of a horror film called Coed Frenzy for which Travolta’s character is providing the sound effects, until the shocking climax, Blow Out is a film as memorable for its clever premise and believable central performances as it is for its disturbingly grimy, though admittedly sporadic, violence. Which is the secret that makes this film, along with much of De Palma’s other work, as genuinely unnerving today as it was when first released over thirty years ago. Even his full-on shockers relied as heavily on suspense and suggestion as vivid viscerals (The Fury‘s infamously ‘mind-blowing’ climax aside). De Palma knew what really scared audiences (particularly American), and the political conspiracy at the centre of Blow Out does just this – corrupt and scandal-prone politicians are part of our everyday lives, and hence provide an air of reality to a theme which could have been in danger of appearing farfetched.
Which highlights the film’s other beauty, namely its cleverness. That Jack is caught in a circle of deceit and intrigue of which he initially knows nothing, only to have the truth dawn slowly as he begins to piece together the puzzle, emphasises the sharpness of an often audacious storyline. This, along with an edge-of-the-seat climax that provides a very ‘un-Hollywood’ denouement and surprisingly touching ending, combine to produce an overall experience which is both memorable and unexpectedly satisfying for a film with, if you’re honest, somewhat sordid constituents.
As mentioned it is Blow Out‘s cast that makes the film come alive. Travolta and Allen play off each-other wonderfully, and their burgeoning relationship which blossoms from initial suspicion to genuine concern and trust only serves to emphasise the danger their characters find themselves in as the film draws to a close. Where the villain of the piece is concerned, suffice to say that a young John Lithgow makes for the best type of screen psychopath – an insidious, wily and ultimately heinous character, who says more with a silent sneer than many actors could project with a page of verbose dialogue.
These aspects, along with its backdrop of a marvellously captured inner-city America, make Blow Out one of De Palma’s most criminally undervalued films, often unjustly overshadowed as it is by his better known work.
Blow Out received its UK Blu-ray and Blu-ray Steelbook premiere on May 27, 2013. A host of extras included interviews with the star Nancy Allen and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, a gallery of on-set photos, original theatrical trailer, reversible cover artwork and a fully illustrated collector’s booklet.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.