fri 01/12/2023

Blu-ray: Blow Out | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Blow Out

Blu-ray: Blow Out

Brian De Palma's glossy homage to Hitchcock is showing its age

Don't touch that dial: John Travolta on the trail of a conspiracy

A lot has changed in the 40 years since Blow Out was first released. In 1981, American critics from Pauline Kael to Roger Ebert praised to the heavens Brian De Palma’s homage to assorted Hitchcock thrillers and his script’s mash-up of 1970s conspiracies.

Certainly this handsomely restored print does justice to Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography. Not since Vertigo has a hotel bedroom been so artfully saturated in sickly red neon and ghastly green.

But in 2021, what’s also striking is De Palma’s inability to film an actress without wanting to strip her or stick her with a knife. It’s also debilitating how cheesy his taste in music is – the hyperbolic film score is an endurance test, which is a little ironic when the lead character in Blow Out is a sound recordist.

Jack (John Travolta) is a technician who adds in the screams and bloody gurgles needed to enhance the low-budget exploitation movies that pay his rent. Out one night to capture some atmospherics, he inadvertently records a speeding car crashing through a barrier into a creek. Diving into the murky water, he rescues the passenger, Sally (Nancy Allen), an aspiring make-up artist, but not the driver, a politician who was being touted as the next President.

cover Blow OutSally is mysteriously removed from the official account and Jack finds himself embroiled in a thriller with numerous twists and turns. Throbbing through the narrative is the Chappaquiddick scandal, the Zapruder footage, and the bugging of the Watergate hotel.

There’s an obvious conspiracy going on, but who’s behind it? At one point, our hero is told to “save your paranoia for public television”, but that’s not a medium that would allow lavish car chases through Liberty Day parades in De Palma’s home town, Philadelphia. 

John Lithgow plays the standard De Palma dead-eyed psychopath rather well and Travolta gets to be an action hero and drive his jeep very fast through costumed crowds (at least on blue screen). But poor Nancy Allen’s baby-girl voice and naïve gullibility throughout is dispiriting. De Palma’s love of Hitchcock clearly doesn’t extend to giving his actresses a backbone. It’s hard to imagine Tippi Hedren, Grace Kelly, or even Kim Novak in the role. 

Criterion's new Blu-ray comes with a 2010 De Palma interview conducted by Noah Baumbach, a fanboy admirer since childhood (he made a documentary about the director in 2015). There are also interviews with Nancy Allen, who recalls working with her then husband at the helm, insights into the Steadicam used in the extracts from the film-within-a-film slasher movie, and De Palma's 1968 directorial debut, Murder à la Mod.

But if you’re nostalgic for classy conspiracy movies about sound recordists, rewatching Coppola’s The Conversation is a far better bet. 

De Palma’s love of Hitchcock doesn’t extend to giving his actresses a backbone


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