By John H. Foote
6. BLOW OUT (1981)
Among the great young directors emerging in the seventies was Brian De Palma who gave us Phantom of the Paradise (1974), a cult classic re-imagining of Phantom of the Opera, only this time in the world of rock and roll; and Carrie (1976), the first great adaptation of a Stephen King novel. Both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie received Academy Award nominations for Carrie, landing De Palma in the elite of seventies directors. His eighties film Dressed to Kill (1980) suggested Hitchcock in its style, but was, I thought a wildly original film on its own merit.
He made a huge leap forward with Blow Out, still his finest film, and helped young John Travolta become a leading man, an actor, not a teenager any longer. So good was Travolta in the role of sound engineer Jack Terry that Pauline Kael, the great film critic of the seventies and eighties, compared him to a young Marlon Brando, heady and accurate praise indeed. The first time Travolta was portraying an adult, he leaped into the role with relish and in the fast-moving narrative found the ideal role for himself to make the jump to grand, serious dramatic films. The finest thriller of the decade, Blow Out has lost none of its power, though the immediacy of social media dates the picture. But watch close, it is still a smashing good film, and deserved to be among the Oscar nominees that year. Sadly, tragically, it was not.
Based very loosely on Antoniono’s film Blow Up (1966), the difference here is we are not dealing with photographs but sound, thus the visual power is transferred to audio.
Jack Terry (Travolta) is a sound man for B grade horror films, gathering screams and creaky sounds to flesh out the horror films. Tasked with finding new effects for a new film, he takes his kit outside one night and begins gathering sounds – the wind, an owl, a couple walking aware of him not realizing he can hear everything they say. He holds his microphone like a conductor conducting a great orchestra, gentle, careful, an artist at work. He picks up the sound of an approaching car, and then hears a gunshot and blow out of a tire as the car heads off the bridge into the river. Close enough to help, he puts down his gear as we see a man running from the bushes with a rifle and Jack dives into the water and gets to the car. The driver is dead, but a young woman is frantically in the back trying to get out. The man in the back with her is also dead. Jack uses a rock to smash the window and pulls her out of the water, near death. He revives her on the grass and rides with her to the hospital where police and government officials have gathered. The man in the back, the dead man, is a very big deal, possibly the next President of the United States, and questions are going to be raised about why he was in the back of the limo with a very pretty young lady.
Jack befriends her, teases her, flirts with her and they do indeed become friends. But something about the case, the way he was treated by the government officials, is weighing on his mind. The sound … it was the sound. In addition to what Jack caught on tape, a photographer happened to be near the site and snapped photos of the car going into the river. Sold to a magazine, Jack grabs a copy and makes a flip book, films it, creating a short film clip and synchs his sound to the picture.
Cleary a shot was fired into the tire, making this a murder, not an accident.
How does Sally (Nancy Allen) figure into it? She worked with a sleazy photographer to get racy photos of powerful men in compromising situations. While she is not proud of it, neither does she apologize for it, despite Jack’s initial disgust. Realizing she is in danger, she stays under Jack’s protection, but the forces who wanted the good senator dead are moving in. Their assassin begins killing women who look like Sally as he moves towards her to make it look like serial killings.
Jack vows to keep her safe but is no match for the killer.
His studio is looted for the sole purpose of stealing his tapes, and it becomes impossible for Sally to get out of town. Inevitably she falls into the hands of the killer, portrayed with chilling psychosis by a young John Lithgow, and having miked her up, listens as she is murdered. Jack manages to kill the assassin but is too late to save Sally.
We last see him in a dingy screening room where Sally’s terrified screams are in the film, and Jack hears them, haunted, whispering, “Yeah … it’s a good scream … good scream” yet with each sound he winces, forever damaged by what he is hearing.
Sally’s murder will be the second tragedy he has endured through his work. In flashback we learn of a witness within a crime organization who fearfully wears a wire into a meeting to expose the crime lord. But the acid within the tape recorder begins to leak and burns him, exposing he is taping them so they kill him, for which Jack feels responsible. The overwhelming burden he feels over Sally’s murder will haunt him until his dying day. Also on the tape is her cheerful, hopeful voice about their impending future together, spoken before she encounters the assassin who will murder her without feeling. This would haunt anyone.
Travolta is sensational as Jack and should have been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor, as his was easily among the finest five performances of the year. He digs in and slips under the skin of Jack, no longer movie star John Travolta, but a below average sound man for B grade horror films, sleazy tits and ass films with lots of blood. Though he is working beneath his talents this is what he believes he deserves. What will he deserve after this? Haunted in the final shot in the screening room, both mourning and feeling the intense loss of Sally, how does anyone come back from this? Terry is an intelligent man involved in something so terrible he does not understand until it is too late, and then it is simply beyond his understanding. Never has grief hit him like this. We feel and see the devastation in Jack, as portrayed beautifully and with great purity by Travolta. Not a false moment, not a wrong step, he is rather astonishing. Nothing Travolta had previously done, prepared us for the genius of this performance, nothing.
Though Nancy Allen’s Sally takes some getting used too, the kewpie doll voice, the dim bulb façade she puts on, we realize she is in fact a very shrewd businesswoman using her body as her greatest attribute, and she knows it. She is no lamb in the woods, but neither did she ask to be involved in a murder, and be targeted by an assassin, in that she is an innocent. The hope and joy in her voice about she and Jack getting away and discovering love together is haunting after she is butchered, taken from her in an instant.
John Lithgow was a revelation as Burke, the assassin sent on a mission to terminate a government official and then takes it upon himself to murder girls looking like Sally, making his way to her. Lithgow would demonstrate astonishing range the following year with a stunning performance as Roberta in The World According to Garp (1982), a man given a sex change to be a woman, but not just any man, a former football star. Here as the unfeeling, ice cold Burke we cannot connect him to Roberta, or his sweet faced Sam in Terms of Endearment (1983) two years later, or his paranoid flyer seeing gremlins on the wing of the plane in Twilight Zone (1983).
De Palma used split screens to tell the story, superb cinematography, using his cameras a sculptor would clay to forge his story. Beautifully edited, in fact to perfection, allowed the film to be a complete masterpiece. Years after becoming a cult classic with the help of VHS tapes, Quentin Tarantino brought the film back to the attention of the public with his admiration of it and specifically John Travolta’s performance, which led to his casting in Pulp Fiction (1994).
An entire new generation has since discovered Blow Out with the handsome, pristine print Blu Ray available from Criterion Collection.
A masterpiece that deserved at least eight Academy Award nominations.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.