I have never understood why this Brian De Palma film is not acclaimed as one of the best thrillers of the 1980s. To start with it has a great cast, all on top form. John Travolta, (playing it straight) Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, and the reliable Dennis Franz. Direction, lighting, and sound are all beautifully done, and the story is compelling, told at the perfect pace. Despite all that, few people ever mention it, not that many have seen it since it was released, and it is almost never shown on TV.
Travolta plays Jack, a sound technician who works in the film industry. It is his habit to wander around recording all kinds of natural sounds, which he adapts into the sound effects of the film he works on. As he is doing just that one night, he witnesses a car accident. A car plunges off a bridge into a nearby river. Jack jumps in to help, and when he finds the driver is dead, he manages to rescue Sally, (Allen) a young woman who was in the car. He later discovers that the dead man was a state governor, and tipped to become president. Sally is a prostitute, hired to spend the evening with him. When men arrive to try to spirit Sally away from the hospital, Jack helps her to get away, and the pair hide out.
He also learns that a local reporter, Manny Karp, (a suitably sleazy Franz) was near him in the park that night, secretly filming the pair in the car, prior to the accident. In fact, the whole thing was a conspiracy to discredit the governor, and Sally was in on it. When stills from Manny’s film are shown, Jack stitches them together, and overlays his recording of the events. After much experimentation, he hears what sounds like a tyre blowing out, (the Blow Out of the title) and suspects that it could also be a gunshot. Either way, this caused the accident that sent the car into the river.
The mastermind behind the plot is Burke. ( A chilling John Lithgow) He was out to ruin the governor’s career, and will now stop at nothing to get hold of the film and soundtrack that will prove it was murder. Sally and Manny were unaware that Burke always intended to shoot out the tyre, to make it look accidental. And now, he even embarks on a killing spree, strangling young women who look like Sally, and creating the idea of a serial killer, that will make her eventual death look as if it is not associated in any way to the governor.
So, no more spoilers. The build up to the end is exciting and gripping. All the characters begin to come together as the tension builds into the finale. Then, De Palma’s magic kicks in, and the ending is not at all what we might have hoped for, or expected. Of course, it is derivative. In many respects it is a remake of Antonioni’s film ‘Blow Up’ (1966), substituting the sound recording for the photographs in the earlier film, with both stories dealing with the cover up of a murder. The story also has echoes of the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident, that essentially ruined Teddy Kennedy’s hopes of ever becoming president.
But forget all that, and just enjoy a very accomplished, and highly entertaining thriller.