(Today, Franklin Laviola continues his Film Projections series with an analysis of Brian DePalma’s classic thriller Blow Out, recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray via the Criterion Collection. For more by Mr. Laviola, please see his archives on Frontier Psychiatrist.)
There are few contemporary filmmakers who have made such striking use of the widescreen format as Brian DePalma. This was the overwhelming sense I had in April, while enjoying a series of his thrillers, curated by BAMcinematek. His Blow Out (1981), is just one of his many films that screams out to be experienced for the first time on the big screen. The superb new DVD edition (also available on Blu-ray) from the always reliable Criterion Collection, however, offers the next best alternative for properly viewing this landmark political thriller.
DePalma’s previous film, the box-office smash Dressed to Kill (1980), paid extensive homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho (1960). Transvestism, psychiatry, showers as deathtraps, and the early dispatching of a would-be female protagonist were all key elements borrowed and reconfigured by DePalma in that terrific film. In Blow Out, DePalma cross-pollinates the basic premise of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Mod-era Blow Up (1966), with the fixation on sound from Francis Ford Coppola’s Watergate-era The Conversation (1974), to highly original effect.
John Travolta stars as Jack Terry, a sound effects editor for a Philadelphia production company, which specializes in making sleazy, low-budget horror movies. One night, while out recording a new “wind” effect at a local gorge, Jack hears a car speeding down a nearby road. Suddenly, there is a loud bang and the car veers off the embankment and plunges into Wissahickon Creek. Was the bang a gunshot or just a blow out? Before he has a moment to think, Jack plays hero and dives in the water to rescue the people inside the car. The man at the wheel is dead, but there’s a female passenger (Nancy Allen), whom Jack is able to extricate and bring to safety.
At the hospital, Jack learns that the dead man was the governor and the leading candidate to be the next President of the United States. He is also instructed by a group of shady politicos not to reveal to anyone that the girl, named Sally, was ever in the car with the governor. His suspicion aroused, it’s not long before Jack realizes that he accidentally witnessed and recorded an assassination. The details of a vast conspiracy begin to emerge, and Jack, with the help of Sally, sets out to expose the truth. Soon, a deliciously evil and hyper-efficient John Lithgow is on both their tails and will stop at nothing to dispose of them and any evidence of the assassination.
Praise must go to John Travolta for grounding the film’s complicated plot in a believable emotional reality. Travolta does so much more than merely serve as an audience surrogate. Boyish idealism, humor, guilt, paranoia, obsession, shock, and, ultimately, shattering loss — he hits all of the right notes, coupled with genuine movie star charisma. Within DePalma’s universe, his character is not just an obvious screen cousin to Keith Gordon’s tech wizard in Dressed to Kill, but to both Amy Irving’s guilt-ridden do-gooder in Carrie (1976), and Cliff Robertson’s bereaved father and husband in Obsession (1976). In the film’s final heartbreaking scenes, his performance earns comparison with James Stewart’s work in the final section of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Whether he’s gesturing his hands in dance-like rhythm in the sound recording scenes, casually walking around his work space, or running through Philadelphia’s Penn Station and up the steps in slow-motion, during the film’s climax, Travolta moves with such ease on screen, frequently complementing DePalma’s gliding tracking shots. He reminds us that certain actors were just born to move through frame.
Blow Out is a great showcase for several of DePalma’s trademark techniques: split-screen; the split diopter lens; and the elaborate tracking shot. During the opening credits sequence of the film, DePalma’s use of split-screen is hardly ornamental style for style’s sake, but, instead, serves the narrative. On one side of the screen, DePalma establishes his protagonist at work, in his own world, cataloging sound effects. On the other side, he provides his storyline with a political backdrop, through a generic television news broadcast about the governor’s candidacy and the upcoming Liberty Bell celebration. By simultaneously juxtaposing Travolta‘s mundane activities with the news broadcast, DePalma not only cleverly foreshadows the sudden, violent convergence of these two worlds, but also visually articulates that the personal and the political are never so far removed from one another.
On Criterion’s supplementary disc, DePalma, interviewed by Noah Baumbach, expresses his deep dissatisfaction with current high speed film stocks. According to him, because of these stocks, today’s deep focus is not the same as the deep focus of Hollywood’s Golden Age, in which a filmmaker and his cameraman could more easily maintain focus for the entire depth of field. Loathing the convention of rack focus, DePalma, instead, uses the split diopter to get around this problem. Ideal for widescreen framing, this special lens provides equal focus to an object in the distant background and an object in the extreme foreground. In Blow Out, the split diopter is employed frequently to set up or punctuate suspense sequences. When John Lithgow initially follows Nancy Allen, for example, DePalma is able to focus on both the photo of Allen, held by Lithgow in the foreground, and Allen herself riding an escalator in the background, thereby heightening the tension of the pursuit. Since the space between the two objects is intrinsically out of focus with the split diopter, DePalma and his legendary cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, use the dark outline of the escalator to hide the blurry line at the middle of the frame.
Always up and ready for a technical challenge, DePalma is not opposed to capturing an entire scene in a single moving shot. Blow Out contains one particularly breathtaking, extended moment, when John Travolta slowly begins to realize that John Lithgow has erased all of his audio files. In bravura fashion, the camera repeatedly pans 360 around Travolta’s work studio, even changing speeds, as he intermittently comes in and out of frame, testing file after file on the various equipment. Like an inverse to the ecstatic swirling of the final shot of DePalma’s Obsession, the endlessly encircling camera, here, comes to mirror Travolta’s growingly obsessive, paranoid, and defeated state of mind.
DePalma is unquestionably the master of the Hitchcockian setpiece. The prom night massacre in Carrie, the cruising of Angie Dickinson at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Dressed to Kill, and the lesbian seduction/jewel heist by Rebecca Romijn Stamos at the Cannes Film Festival in Femme Fatale (2002), — there are numerous examples throughout DePalma’s career, but these are three extended suspense sequences that stand out. Blow Out is structured around a series of setpieces: the opening slasher film parody; the assassination at Wissahickon Creek; the Lithgow serial murders; the climactic Liberty Bell fireworks extravaganza.
Perhaps the setpiece that is the most revealing is the film’s most logistically small in scale. Alone in his studio one night, Travolta first checks the quality of his rough assassination film strip (derived by his photographing, with an animation camera, captured still shots from a Zapruder-like record of the event), and then moves on to find the exact locations of the gunshot and blow out on his own recorded soundtrack. Next, on his Moviola editing machine, he proceeds to sync up the image with the audio. The resulting film might just be all the proof needed to expose the conspiracy — at least in his own mind. DePalma, with great precision, takes this opportunity to study the craft and process of filmmaking, more or less in real-time, with a highly concentrated Travolta as his surrogate.
The Travolta character’s idealistic belief that he can use the medium of film to reveal the truth of the matter is, I believe, ultimately shared by DePalma himself. After all, what makes Blow Out such a great film is not just DePalma’s ingenious construction and orchestration of story and suspense, but his expression of a sincere moral vision in the face of a harsh, tragic reality. Unlike so many contemporary filmmakers, working in this genre, DePalma does not succumb to an easy, fashionable nihilism. Within the universe of his thrillers, people can certainly be cruel or indifferent, technology and sources of media prove limited and unreliable, good intentions often backfire with disastrous consequences, but something invariably lives on.
In Blow Out, the most bloodcurdling of screams in the night will always be a reminder of the truth.
A Note On The Special Features …
*Included on the supplementary disc is Brian DePalma’s first feature-length film Murder a la Mod (1967). Set in the world of New York, Andy Warholesque underground filmmaking, this black & white experimental horror film, with obvious echoes of both Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), stands out for its clever play with overlapping chronology and first-person point of view shots. The film stars William Finley as the demented voyeur “Otto,” while another future DePalma regular, Jennifer Salt, makes a cameo early on. From the beginning, DePalma definitely had a talent for photographing beautiful women … sometimes in various states of undress.
*The aforementioned and very informative hour-long interview with an endearingly irritable Brian DePalma, conducted by Noah Baumbach.
*An interview (approximately 25 minutes) with the film’s still-fetching star Nancy Allen. Allen, who was married to DePalma at the time of the film’s making, provides a series of anecdotes about certain aspects of the shoot.
*An interview (approximately 15 minutes) with a particularly gregarious Garrett Brown, the inventor of the Steadicam. Brown tells of how he came straight from the set of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining to the set of Blow Out and was asked by DePalma to be deliberately amateurish, in his operating of the Steadicam for the opening slasher film parody. He also mentions that this was Brian DePalma’s first ever use of the device.
*Original Trailer + Gallery of production stills by ace on-set photographer Louis Goldman
Basically, the only thing missing here is a commentary track by either DePalma, Director of Photography Vilmos Zsigmond, editor Paul Hirsch, members of the highly accomplished sound team, or the film‘s cast. One can’t ask for everything though.
Brian DePalma, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas were a group of filmmaking buddies that hit Hollywood by storm in the early 1970s. To this day, DePalma is still the most misunderstood and under-appreciated of the group. Hopefully, Criterion’s new, restored digital transfer of Blow Out, one of DePalma’s masterworks, will help to remedy this problem. The DVD edition’s anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio, color, and resolution are all top-notch and quite faithful to the original source material, while the all-important sound is brilliantly dynamic. This is clearly one of Criterion’s major releases, if not their very best, so far this year. Blow Out should be considered an essential addition to any collector or film lover’s DVD shelf.
Franklin P. Laviola is a filmmaker and freelance writer, based in the New York area. He wrote and directed the award-winning short film “Happy Face,” which has screened at over twenty film festivals. He recently wrote on the 35th Anniversary of the film Taxi Driver and interviewed filmmaker Heather Spilkin regarding her documentary Above Brooklyn. Blow Out is available via the Criterion Collection on DVD and Blu-Ray.