DirectorBrian De Palma
Release Date(s)1981 (September 6, 2022)
Studio(s)Viscount Associates/Filmways (The Criterion Collection – Spine #562)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B+
While Brian De Palma unquestionably has a distinctive cinematic voice of his own, he’s still made a career out of creating pastiches of the works of other directors like Alfred Hitchcock. He’s directed overtly Hitchcockian tales such as Obsession and Body Double, but generally it’s more a matter of his having absorbed certain elements of the style and themes that the Master of Suspense utilized. With Blow Out, however, De Palma produced the ultimate pastiche by mixing and matching elements from various other filmmakers with different aspects of real-life political events, yet in a way that still came out as uniquely De Palma. Blow Out was something old, something new, something borrowed, and something very blue. It was Hitchcock, Michelangelo Antonioni, Francis Ford Coppola, and Abraham Zapruder meeting John F. Kennedy and Teddy Kennedy, combined with the perversity and violence against women that’s been the hallmark of much of De Palma’s own work. Blow Out represents his best instincts mixed with his worst predilections, all in the same film.
De Palma was directly inspired by Coppola’s The Conversation, yet as the title of his film indicates, it owes just as much to Blow Up. Both Blow Out and The Conversation involve putting aural pieces together to try to solve a puzzle, in much the same way that Blow Up’s David Hemmings was trying to put visual pieces together. De Palma’s clever twist was that he combined both of those two elements in the same story. His protagonist Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound man working on a low-budget horror movie in Philadelphia. While he’s recording new sound effects one evening, he witnesses a car plunging off the road into a nearby river. The driver ends up drowning, but Jack is able to save a passenger named Sally Bedina (Nancy Allen). Jack later discovers that the driver was Governor McRyan, and Sally was his escort. When he plays back his recordings the next day, he thinks that he hears a gunshot, and suspects that McRyan may have been assassinated. Shortly after that, a sleazy photographer named Manny Karp (Dennis Franz) goes public with film that he shot of the accident, and Jack works tirelessly to try to prove the truth by combining his audio with Manny’s video, shamelessly using Sally to achieve that end. Unbeknownst to all of them, the shadowy political operative Burke (John Lithgow) is trying to clean up the whole mess, with both Jack and Sally in his crosshairs.
While all of that may seem like a straightforward political conspiracy thriller, De Palma chose to add in elements from the kinds of exploitative horror movies that Jack has been making. Burke has all the subtlety of the White House Plumbers, and some of the messes that he’s cleaning up are entirely of his own creation. When he attempts to take Sally out of the equation, he ends up creating collateral damage, and in order to cover that up, he deliberately leaves the false impression that various women have been murdered by a serial killer that the press will soon dub “The Liberty Bell Strangler.” That setup gave De Palma plenty of opportunity to include a few of his patented Hitchcockian stalking sequences, with women always being the target. Like many other De Palma films, Blow Out has faced accusations of misogyny, although as is often the case, the reality is a bit more nuanced than both his critics and defenders may be willing to acknowledge. Blow Out unquestionably provides plenty of fuel for the fire, with nearly all of the female characters being either victims or whores, and usually both. Of course, just because some of the characters in a given film may be misogynistic doesn’t necessarily mean that the filmmakers themselves are endorsing that perspective, but with De Palma, making that distinction can sometimes be challenging.
The nihilistic ending of Blow Out has always generated strong reactions in that regard, with defenders arguing that it was necessary for the story that De Palma was telling. That’s true enough, at least when considered narrowly from the perspective of one of the characters. Yet from the perspective of the other one, it’s a betrayal of the highest order. The way that everything plays out during the finale of Blow Out definitely feeds into the accusations of misogyny, since it means that a woman ends up having been a part of the story for little other reason than to provide motivation for a man. All of the female characters in the film are victimized by men in one form or another, and whatever internal strength that any of them may possess simply isn’t enough to escape being used. Even the coda reinforces that fact, with Nancy ending up being used by Jack one last time. That moment brings the narrative full circle back to the way that everything began and it’s a powerful emotional moment for Jack, but it’s entirely at Nancy’s expense, and he hasn’t really learned a damned thing other than to feel sorry for himself. It may or may not be the right ending for the story, but either way, it’s an abnegation of everyone’s humanity, Jack and Nancy included.
Still, not all of the perversity that De Palma demonstrated in Blow Out was of a sexual or emotional nature. Another perverse angle of the story is that it freely mixes elements of the JFK assassination with Mary Jo Kopechne’s tragic death in Teddy Kennedy’s car on Chappaquiddick Island. In some respects, that’s almost as disconcerting as any of the violence against women in the film. It’s merging the fact that JFK’s murder brought his Presidency to an untimely end with the fact that Teddy’s own Presidential aspirations ended after his being personally responsible for bringing the life of an innocent woman to an untimely end—JFK was the victim, but Teddy was the perpetrator. Of course, De Palma didn’t really intend any deep meaning to the way in which he inverted Chappaquiddick and plugged it into JFK’s assassination; he was just randomly using elements of those real-life tragedies as building blocks for his own story. Like Jack, De Palma has always been less concerned with consequences than he is with effects. Still, that does indirectly prove the truth of the ending to the film: some men are all too willing to use whatever (and whoever) happens to be convenient to them. Blow Out isn’t necessarily thought of as being a personal film, but it’s as personal as anything that De Palma has ever done, mixing his obsessions, his strengths, and his weaknesses into a flawed but fascinating whole. It’s a frustratingly brilliant film, just like he’s always been a frustratingly brilliant director.
Legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (with brief assistance from the no less legendary László Kovács) shot Blow Out on 35 mm film using Panavision Panaflex and Panaflex-X cameras with C-series anamorphic lenses, framed at 2.39:1 for its theatrical release. This version uses a 16-bit 4K scan of the original camera negative, cleaned up and graded in High Dynamic Range for both Dolby Vision and HDR10. It’s a stunning master, immaculately clean and free of any significant damage. There are a few white dots running through entire shots during the opening credits sequence, but those were baked into the original opticals, so they aren’t speckling in the normal sense of damage to the negative. Zsigmond was famous for softening the image via diffusion and flashing the camera negatives, but Blow Out is unusually sharp for one of his films. Fine details and textures are extremely well-resolved, as is the grain. That grain can vary a bit from shot to shot, but again, that’s inherent to the original cinematography. The HDR grade enhances the contrast range without exaggerating it, and it also strengthens the levels of fine detail in both the darkest and the brightest parts of the frame. It’s a stunning presentation of the film, and effectively perfect—any flaws that may seem to exist here are inherent to the original production.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. Blow Out was released theatrically in Dolby Stereo, so this is a four-channel mix matrix encoded into two—kudos to Criterion for making note of that fact in their accompanying booklet, and reminding viewers to engage their decoders when watching the film. While the addition of a discrete 4.0 version taken from the original master tapes might have been nice, this has always been a good example of a Dolby Stereo mix from that era. The bulk of the sound effects tend to be focused on the center channel, with stereo separation and surround activity reserved for key moments like the playback of the audio recordings of the accident. Sound effects during those moments are positioned accurately in space to better convey the geography of the action to the viewer. The dialogue is always clear (especially the screams!), and Pino Donaggio’s score sounds superb here—it’s one of his very best.
Criterion’s 4K Ultra HD release of Blow Out is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film. There’s also a 32-page booklet featuring essays by Michael Sragow and Pauline Kael, as well as a reproduction of the original photographic spread that appears in prop magazine during the film. The extras were all originally included Criterion’s 2011 Blu-ray release, and they’re on the Blu-ray only in this edition as well:
- Noah Baumbach Interviews Brian De Palma (HD – 57:48)
- Nancy Allen Interview (HD – 25:25)
- Garett Brown Interview (HD – 15:03)
- Louis Goldman Photographs (HD, 25 in all)
- Murder á la Mod (HD – 80:23)
- Theatrical Trailer (Upscaled SD – 1:45)
The interview between fellow writer/directors Baumbach and De Palma is a bit of a lovefest, with Baumbach clearly being an ardent fanboy, but it’s still a fascinating dialogue that offers some great stories about the making of Blow Out. De Palma explains how he assembled the narrative out of a few different ideas, including one of his own personal experiences while making another film. Baumbach grills him various technical details, like the roving Steadicam, the use of split screens, and the depth of field from split diopters. De Palma says that he thinks that “coverage” is a dirty word, which is why he shoots things in long takes with moving cameras instead. (Baumbach slips up later in the interview and uses the word coverage again, provoking a reaction out of De Palma.) They also discuss the theft of several boxes of negatives while mixing Blow Out, resulting in De Palma scrambling to get reshoots done with László Kovács since Zsigmond was already working on a different film. De Palma does state that you have to get out of your own clichés and not keep making the same movie over and over again, which is a bit ironic given how frequently that he’s returned to the Hitchcockian well.
The interview with Nancy Allen covers the process of casting, screen testing, and rehearsing for Blow Out, as well as how she developed the character of Nancy (including the voice). She talks about working with John Travolta, Dennis Franz, and John Lithgow, plus she gives a glimpse of her working relationship with De Palma at the time. Since the production got bigger due to the presence of Travolta, Allen feels that shooting everything got less pleasant for De Palma, who had originally conceived of it as a much smaller picture. She talks about her difficulties shooting the underwater sequences since she suffers from claustrophobia (a subject that De Palma covers from his own perspective in his interview with Baumbach). Allen also candidly discusses some of the negative critical reactions to her performance.
Garrett Brown, the inventor of the Steadicam, appears for an interview to describe his experiences shooting the Co-Ed Frenzy sequence at the beginning of Blow Out. He demonstrates the full system, as well smaller modern derivatives for camcorders and even iPhones. When De Palma asked him to work on Blow Out, he was just coming off of having worked on The Shining, and he was looking forward to doing a better-executed P.O.V. shot than the Panaglide shot that opens Halloween—only to discover that De Palma wanted him do deliberately clumsy work to mimic a cheap horror movie. Brown also talks about the legacy of the Steadicam, and what it’s meant to the film industry.
The last two extras include Louis Goldman Photographs, which is a collection of stills that Goldman shot on the set of Blow Out, and De Palma’s first feature film Murder á la Mod. Shot in 1967 but not given a limited theatrical release until 1968, the black-and-white Murder á la Mod is a much more overt homage to Blow Up than Blow Out would end up being. It plays with the idea of point-of-view in regards to the photographic image, ultimately mixing in a bit of Rashomon by having the same events shown from the P.O.V. of different characters. It’s included here not just because of the subject matter, but also because it’s the film that’s showing on Manny’s television set in Blow Out. Murder á la Mod is presented in 1080p with English 1.0 Dolby Digital mono, and it looks quite good—damage is minimal, the grayscale is solid, and the contrast is good. There’s some excessive sibilance in the dialogue, but it’s still perfectly comprehensible.
Note that Criterion has also included an Easter Egg that’s accessible by pressing the blue button while looking at the Supplements menu. It’s a gallery of some of the real-world movie posters that are glimpsed in the background during Blow Out, including Island of the Damned, Squirm, Lure of the Triangle, Fantasex, The Other Side of Julie, Without Warning, The Boogey Man, Empire of the Ants, The Food of the Gods, and The Incredible Melting Man.
That’s all of Criterion’s own extras for Blow Out, but this set is still missing the extras from other Region B releases from Carlotta Films, Arrow, and Koch Media. That includes an introduction from Samuel Blumenfeld, as well as the documentaries Un cri de verité (aka A Cry of Truth), The Sound of Killing, and Multi-Tracking Blow Out. There are also interviews with Vilmos Zsigmond, Pino Donaggio, and producer George Litto, as well as an alternate interview with Nancy Allen. While owners of those discs will want to hang onto them for the extras, this gorgeous 4K presentation of Blow Out is reference-quality, and it leaves all other versions in the dust. As upgrades go, this one is mandatory.
- Stephen Bjork