BLOW OUT bombed out in 1981, when mostly positive reviews failed to counter negative audience word-of-mouth about its cruel bummer of an ending. Lagging at 65th place among the year’s releases, the $13,800,000 gross was D.O.A. against an $18,000,000 price tag. Likable performances and Brian De Palma’s abundant directorial flair carry it most of the way, then illogic, already present in spades, takes over completely and the crushing finale grabs the entertainment factor, already wounded by lingering over brutal homicides, and literally strangles it. What’s left is the sour aftertaste that reminds you “Of course you feel like crap, you just saw a Brian De Palma movie.” *
Former cop ‘Jack Terry’ (John Travolta) is a sound effects technician, based in Philadelphia, working on crummy slasher pictures. One night, out recording ambient sounds along a river road, he witnesses a car crash. His quick action saves ‘Sally’ (Nancy Allen, then married to the director) from drowning along with the driver, a favored Presidential candidate. His skill-set soon puts together noise vs. crash timing elements that reveal it wasn’t an accident. Officials don’t care to hear his eyewitness version, let alone see his carefully spliced together audio-visual proof. His sincerity and charm convince the tarnished and gullible but basically decent Sally to join with him and solve the crime.
In the mix over 108 flashy minutes are ‘Burke’ (John Lithgow), an icy hitman who covers conspiracy tracks by staging ritual murders as a ruse, and ‘Manny Karp’ (Dennis Franz, in one of five jobs for De Palma), the sleazeball who manipulates Sally. Travolta and Allen, teamed again by the director seven years after he memorably paired them in Carrie, have screen chemistry going; this is maybe her most likable character. After assiduously constructing an interesting plot, partly riffed off the influential Blow-Up, part from his fascination with political skullduggery, De Palma—he wrote as well as directed—resorts to viewer-participatory femicide to spice the stew. The extravagant finale is so over-the-top it’s laughable, then he insists on hurting us as much as the characters.
Excellent cinematography was the province of Vilmos Zsigmond, with some touch-up that called upon Laszlo Kovacs. Cast includes John McMartin, Deborah Everton, Robin Sherwood, Missy Cleveland.
* De Palma can’t help himself, and his fervent fanboys can excuse it all they want: spin the camera six ways from Satyricon, but time and again it finally comes down to gore-drenched turf: attractive women have to suffer—Carrie, The Fury, Dressed To Kill, Body Double, Casualties Of War. Though not a financial hit, Blow Out was mostly well-reviewed at the time. Pauline Kael wet the bed, gushing that the director, who she infamously championed, had gone “to the place where genre is transcended and what we’re moved by is an artist’s vision”: what we’re nudged by is a critic ready for a medicated stay in Bellevue. Today, it’s lionized beyond belief; Quentin Tarantino puts it up there with his other rave faves Rio Bravo and Taxi Driver. No sale from this end of the couch.
Quality Crime in ’81—-Body Heat, Cutter’s Way, Fort Apache The Bronx, Nighthawks, Absence Of Malice, Eyewitness, Escape From New York, Thief, Prince Of The City.