“I’ve always have been saying and have been saying for years that the position of the camera is as important as what you’re photographing. A dirty word to me is ‘coverage’. You know, ‘two shot’. ‘Over the shoulder’. It’s stuff you see all the time and it just drives me crazy because this to me is not directing. You have to think about where the camera is in relation to the material.” — Brian DePalma interviewed by Noah Baumbach in New York, October 2010
Blow Out (1981)
Directed by Brian DePalma
Written by Brian DePalma
Produced by George Litto
While cameras didn’t roll until the 1980s, Blow Out is the most deviously engineered political thriller of the 1970s. Veering down an alley familiar to anyone who’s poured over the Kennedy assassination or the Watergate cover-up, it’s also a love letter from a filmmaker to the nuts and bolts of his beloved craft. John Travolta (much closer in age to Tony Manero than whatever growed up moron he played in the Look Who’s Talking comedies) delivers just the right combination of geeky obsession and downtrodden sleaze as a B-movie sound man who records what he believes to be an assassination on audio tape. Quentin Tarantino was such a huge fan of Blow Out (placing it at one time among his three favorite movies of all time) that Travolta was likely cast in Pulp Fiction as a result of his performance here.
Travolta plays Jack Terry, a man whose love of electronics and the solitary hours tinkering over a work bench have led him to a shit job recording and mixing sound effects for a Philadelphia based producer of slasher movies. Sent back to the field when his employer (Peter Boyden) demands new effects for their latest picture Coed Frenzy, Terry is on Wissahickon Creek Bridge when he witnesses a Buick plunge into the water. He rescues the passenger — a daffy blonde named Sally (Nancy Allen) — but later discovers the stiff behind the wheel was Governor McRyan, the presumed frontrunner of the next presidential race. Terry’s ear and his tape enable him to reconstruct the blowout, which he believes was no accident. Meanwhile, the assassin (John Lithgow) comes out of the shadows to clip the loose threads left dangling from his crime.
The inspiration to use a sound man as protagonist came to Brian DePalma while he was mixing his previous thriller Dressed to Kill with sound editor Dan Sable. The idea of demonstrating to an audience how sound and images were synched together in an editing room and how that process might reveal a murder quickly obsessed DePalma as well. Filmways put up financing and permitted DePalma to shoot the picture in Philadelphia, where the filmmaker and his agent/producer George Litto had both grown up (the bridge spanning Wissahickon Creek had been a lovers lane when DePalma was a teenager). The film’s stark tone and jarring, unexpected climax may have given critics and audiences a cold shoulder. When Blow Out opened July 1981 in the United States, the press agreed it was a flop.
Viewed under the ever present magnifying glass that sweeps over the film, neither Travolta or Allen come across as very compelling human beings. The characters act and speak within the confines of a trade paperback plot, but the appeal of Blow Out is the doomed nature of their relationship and the technical virtuosity wielded to express it. DePalma’s passion for the possibilities of filmmaking and its limitations are potent, while watching Travolta splice together a snuff film from scratch is intoxicating as well. Blow Out starts strong, wanders around in a stupor a bit before delivering a knockout ending. As a bonus, Dennis Franz appears in the first of many Dennis Franz roles — as a private dick without a single redeeming quality — while cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond collaborated with DePalma on the film’s intricate, spellbinding look.