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BLOW OUT(director/writer: Brian De Palma; cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond; editor: Paul Hirsch; cast: John Travolta (Jack), Nancy Allen (Sally), John Lithgow (Burke), Dennis Franz (Manny Karp), Peter Boyden (Sam), John Aquino (Detective Mackey), Curt May (Frank Donahue), John McMartin (Lawrence Henry); Runtime: 107; Orion Films; 1981)
“It’s an effective film mostly because it has a sense of humor and Travolta is convincing as the unlikely hero fighting against political corruption.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Brian De Palma is a commercial filmmaker who imitates other noted filmmakers but has not met with the same artistic success as a Hitchcock or a Coppola, ones he in particular gravitates towards; but, by adding his own brand of sleek cinematography and gratuitous violent action scenes to jazz his films up, he at least salvages some identity of his own. This film is mostly imitative of Michelangelo Antonioni’s art-house film Blow-Up (1966) and somewhat of Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). But what Antonioni does, is make you wish to penetrate his film, he makes you think about what you are seeing. Coppola will challenge you to have a political view of what you are seeing. Their films are so well-received as art films because they go beneath the surface of things, they have something to say. While De Palma’s films are only surface vehicles, there is nothing to think about. His films are pretty to look at and are good at simulating what an art film is, but they are more interested in being entertaining than anything else. Therefore, even if “Blow Out” pretends to be like the above mentioned films, it is in style only. It’s an effective film mostly because it has a sense of humor and Travolta is convincing as the unlikely hero fighting against political corruption.

It is a thriller set in Philadelphia, where Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound man on “B” horror movies. Jack worked two years for the police to wire undercover agents exposing corrupt policemen, but he quits because an agent he worked with got killed when he was spotted being miked. He is currently working with Sam (Boyden), knocking off as many as 5 cheap films a year. The running gag is that he needs a perfect scream for his current film, a Psycho-like one, and the actresses he auditions can’t give a realistic fright scream. You can guess where he gets a perfect realistic scream by the film’s conclusion.

One night recording the outdoor sounds for his film, he witnesses a car go over the bridge railing and into the river below. Instinctively, he jumps in and saves the pretty woman, but the man in the car is already dead.

When he is at the hospital he learns that the dead man was the governor of the state and that he’s running for president, and that the girl in the car is a hooker named Sally (Nancy Allen-the then-wife of the director). One of the governor’s aides (McMartin) asks him to cover it up that there was a girl in the car, since he was a family man and it wouldn’t look right. This is an obvious reference to Teddy Kennedy’s Chappaquidick political scandal.

When questioned by a hostile detective Mackey (Aquino) who knew him from his cop days he tells the officer it wasn’t an accident as reported to the newspapers, but that the tire was shot out. He knows this since he audiotaped the car crash and can clearly hear two bangs — one of which he is sure is a gunshot, while the other is the tire blowout.

Jack gets angry when he discovers there was a sleazy photographer, Manny (Dennis Franz), who happened to be there at the time of the accident and has taken pictures of it, which he sells to a magazine for a hefty fee. Jack gets the magazine photos and links his sound to the still photos. When completed, Jack is absolutely sure it was the gunshot from an assassin he heard. He goes to Mackey with this evidence, who says he doesn’t believe him but will check out his tape anyway because that’s his job. But the assassin Burke (John Lithgow) went to his studio and erased the tapes, so what he has given the police is nothing but a blank tape.

The film was taut and exciting up to this point, but there are several breakdowns in the story as it veers into the slasher mode. Jack figures out that Sally and Manny worked together setting the presidential candidate up for a compromising photo. The film asks, Will the police believe him and can he stop the assassin? It unsuccessfully tries to work a conspiracy theory into the mystery.

De Palma has moved solidly into mundane territory, jettisoning ideas in favor of high-tech shots and thrilling action scenes.

The political agenda of the film, a reaction against the right-wing Reagan types, becomes apparent in the film’s climactic scenes where Jack is caught at the “Liberty Day” celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Liberty Bell. The action takes place in the crowded streets of Philly, as he has Sally miked just like he had the agent when he worked for the police. But, the right-wing fanatic Burke has fooled her into thinking he is the newspaper reporter (May) who is going to expose the cover up on TV and she meets him to give him the tapes. Politics is seen as being as corrupt and dirty as ever, even so soon after Watergate, as those involved in it are still capable of using any means possible to get elected.

This was not the gloomy theme the public wanted to see at the time, as “Blow Out” was never popular in its day. It had received mixed reviews from the major film critics at the time. Even though it was uneven, it caught the attention of some current film critics and film buffs. It is now established as a cult-favorite. I thought it was limited in scope but because of the flashy camerawork, the fine performances by both Travolta (his first major starring role) and Lithgow, and the many thrills it provided, it was easy to watch and just as easy to forget.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”