Blow Out (1981)

4 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The premise for the Brian De Palma’s tense thriller “Blow Out” goes like this: A sound man for a b-movie factory goes out one night to capture sounds of nature, only to record a supposed car accident that he believes may not have been an accident the more he listens to his recording. Is there a gunshot before a tire blow-out? Did someone cause the car to lose control and crash? He uses his knowhow to investigate.

That’s a premise Alfred Hitchcock would have loved to try out, so it makes sense that it was given to director Brian De Palma, who has shown with his filmmaking techniques in thrillers like “Sisters” and “Carrie” that he’s kind of like Hitchcock’s protégé. However, I think his filmmaking style is a little over the top, so instead of calling it Hitchcock-like, let’s just call it De Palma-like. Anyway, the point is that De Palma clearly likes to stylize his films, as he obviously loves film and filmmaking. So even if you don’t like some of his films, it’s hard to argue it’s well-made.

I digress. De Palma’s “Blow Out” is a very well-shot, original thriller that grabs you and doesn’t let go until the end credits roll. It begins with a scene straight out of the sleazy slasher movies in which an unseen stalker lurks about the halls of a college dormitory and follows a young woman to the shower. The twist—the girl’s scream is unconvincing, straight out of a bad horror movie. And…it is a bad horror movie, as our main character, a sound operator named Jack (played by John Travolta), looks over the work-in-progress of the latest product of the b-movie studio he works for. That’s a great opening, and it gives our first glimpse into the fascinating job Jack has. It’s interesting seeing how he works with the equipment in his office, especially for those who enjoy learning about post-production for films.

Anyway, that night, Jack stands on a bridge and records the audio of random sounds of the night. Before long, he becomes witness to an accident that involves a car having a tire blown out and plunging into the river under him. He jumps in to rescue the girl inside the car, named Sandy (Nancy Allen), but is too late to rescue the car’s driver, who turns out to be a potential presidential candidate. He takes her to the hospital and they have a meet-cute that can turn into something semi-romantic for them, but strangely, he is asked by the authorities to forget about what happened. But he can’t, so he tracks Sandy down and sees her every now and then. He also listens to the recording of the accident. He becomes convinced that before the tire blow-out sound is the sound of a gunshot, and that this was no mere accident.

And that’s just the beginning of where this wild ride of conspiracy and secrets takes you, as Jack tries to make it public while he’s being followed and he and Sandy make a run-in with violent characters, including a dirty-tricks specialist (played by John Lithgow) who ties up all loose ends of the ominous plot. There’s also the question of whether or not Sandy can truly be trusted, as it seems she may have something to do with it. Either way, it seems the more they dig deeper into the mystery, the more their lives are in jeopardy.

The plot for “Blow Out” gets more inventive and intense as it connects piece upon piece of this unique, well-crafted puzzle of events. But more importantly, it gives us chances to fully understand what’s going on here and gives us one great sequence after another that shows how these characters work and how they believe that their next move could work. One sequence in particular I’m thinking of is when Jack crafts a movie of the event, using his recording and some photographs.

Of course, being a De Palma film, “Blow Out” is great to look at and gives us unique, striking visual images that are sure to be embedded in the viewer’s head for a long while.

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John Travolta is effective as the main character who’s determined but somewhat bitter too. You may notice how downtrodden he is in this performance most of the time; that’s because Travolta went through insomnia at the time of filming. Given the character’s past (his attempt to use his sound & wire skills to assist cops went horribly wrong), I think it works fine. Nancy Allen plays her role of Sandy as a miserable, needy woman who isn’t sure what she wants and will do anything for acceptance, hence her role as an escort. While Allen’s wispy voice takes a little getting used to, she does manage to earn our sympathies by the time it’s clear her life is in jeopardy. John Lithgow is suitably menacing as the sinister figure who pursues everyone involved, and Dennis Franz is good as a private detective who had something if not everything to do with the incident in the first place.

There’s one thing I don’t like about “Blow Out,” and it’s the ending. Without giving anything away, it settles a running joke about dubbing the perfect scream for one of the b-movies. The payoff is so cruel that I wondered if the whole film was supposed to be a joke. But aside from that, this is a solid, gripping thriller with enough to keep us involved and even more to respect our intelligence.

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