Blow Out (1981, Brian De Palma)

If one were to, empirically, examine the films of the 1990s and onward to the present, he or she might be inclined to not believe in Blow Out. Literally, not believe such a film could exist. Not only does Brian De Palma’s remake of Blowup work, it succeeds… partially because of De Palma’s script (here’s one of those unbelievable elements), particularly the spectacular dialogue–delivered by (here’s the other unbelievable part) a fantastic John Travolta. Travolta’s obviously picked up standard mannerisms from “successful” performances and they’re all so neon, seeing him without them is startling. How De Palma went from the compositional genius of Blow Out–his shots here, beautifully photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, are viscerally unmatched. Describing De Palma’s success in terms of direction is not impossible, but it’s too bothersome for me to do here… It’s somehow singular, even taking in to account the frequent Hitchcock references (which De Palma uses differently here, relying on Pino Donaggio’s score to make the connection more than any visual cues… except maybe in terms of the settings).

De Palma’s script, probably the last thing I expected to start a paragraph admiring, creates this wonderful character for Travolta. Blow Out’s a tragedy about selfish people who try not to be selfish, mostly for the wrong reasons. Kind of. It’s also got these great moments–Travolta arrives at a train station to meet Nancy Allen and, thanks to De Palma’s composition, the simple scene is magnificent–or the lengthy flashback sequence, which is totally out of place in the film, but in place for the character. De Palma’s able to visualize Travolta’s exposition to Allen… a narrated flashback… and doesn’t just make it work, but he makes it great.

The only significant problem with De Palma’s script is how interested it is with John Lithgow’s bad guy. De Palma goes overboard with the attention Lithgow, who goes from a good villain to a cartoon one, gets at the expense of Travolta and Allen.

Allen’s performance is the strangest element in the film. She’s incredibly annoying–playing a complete ditz–and it takes a long time to warm to her (about the same time Travolta develops deeper feelings for her on screen). Lithgow’s fine, not too much with his villainy (another post-1990s impossibility, given Cliffhanger) and Dennis Franz shows up for a small role. Franz is a lot of fun here, establishing his image.

Some of Blow Out’s success–and it’s notability for film school grads (which is how I discovered it ten years ago)–is its fetishistic approach to film editing. The film’s beautifully edited, sure, but it’s also about a sound editor who edits on screen… seeing the machines work is a lot more enthralling than watching me cut something together in iMovie. There’s an energy of physical creation and discovery in those scenes (much like in Blowup) and seeing the process carry out is as thrilling as any chase scene.

I hadn’t seen Blow Out in eight or nine years. Given how invigorating an experience–what a genuine thrill for the cinematic storytelling process it left me with–I hope it isn’t as long again.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Brian De Palma; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by Pino Donaggio; produced by George Litto; released by Filmways Pictures.

Starring John Travolta (Jack Terry), Nancy Allen (Sally), John Lithgow (Burke), Dennis Franz (Manny Karp), Peter Boyden (Sam), Curt May (Donahue), John Aquino (Det. Mackey) and John McMartin (Lawrence Henry).


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