Retro Review: Blow Out (1981)

***Plot spoilers***

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.

44 thoughts on “Retro Review: Blow Out (1981)

  1. Great post 🙂 This is my third favorite Brian De Palma film and my number one favorite of his 1980’s work. The visual techniques mesh in perfectly here with the subject matter of filmmaking. We get de Palma’s trademark split screens in certain areas, an opening steadicam sequence in that film-within-a-film that John Travolta’s character is employing sound effects for and thematically, de Palma’s angry social commentary on the wrongs committed by politically powerful organizations that harkens back to a more darkly comedic take in 1968’s Greetings and perfected in 1970’s Hi, Mom!, which both starred a then young Robert De Niro. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂 and in case you are interested, here is a link to my favorite De Palma films

    https://cinematiccoffee.com/2018/04/07/my-favorite-brian-de-palma-films/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, John. I checked out your list of De Palma films earlier. I don’t share the adoration that so many have for ‘The Untouchables’. I like it, but don’t love it. I have seen ‘Hi Mom’, which left me undecided, I have to say.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

          1. So I just rented and watched it. Great! Nancy Allen. That’s what I looked like in 1982. Complete with frizzy hair and innocent eyes. HA! Anyway, I loved De Palma’s filming. The split screen. Travolta was at the top of his game. Thanks for suggesting it.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. The fireworks and the colors flashing over their faces at the climax, the motif of the scream running through the film, the ending was perfect. The score was sappy, but otherwise, a really nice thriller.

            Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s not a nice movie but its very stylish and not to bitch but the finale clearly shows they don’t make movies like this anymore with a massive crowd scene over major city landmarks.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Understandably, you see it from a modern perspective of course, Lloyd. I was almost 30 when I watched it at the cinema, and in 1981, a film like this was exciting and different. In 2018, it feels rather contrived, and a little tired. We have ‘seen it all before’, and become used to better, I suppose.
            But perhaps you had to be there in 1981, to fully appreciate it. 🙂
            Best wishes, Pete.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. No I get it Pete, I grew up in the film culture of that time and what I find surprising is how it has grown in stature for me since then because they don’t make films like this anymore. They kind of didn’t then. De Palma was a peer of Lucas and Spielberg. On either side of this was Raiders and E.T. When this tanked the writing was on the wall that the 70s were over and the blockbuster had arrived. Adult films would be less and less celebrated. I really like it.

              Liked by 1 person

          2. I watched it last night. I LOVED the fireworks scene over Philadelphia. You have a right to bitch. Why have they stopped doing that? I thought the lights flashing over Travolta’s face was brilliant as he struggles with her death.

            Liked by 2 people

          1. Hey! I think you should co-host L13FC in July with me. Let’s make it a Brian DePalma day. I was looking at his filmography and was amazed at all his great films. You pick your favorite top 3 and I’ll pick 3. We could angle it to discuss his tricks (like the split screen) and his use of favorite actors. That should be enough to generate some discussion.
            Are you game?
            No worries if you are busy or aren’t interested.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Pete, it’s absolutely terrific, and timeless, and one reason it bombed is that it came at the end of a cycle of downbeat 70’s films that examined the decay of the US political system – but the country was burnt out from the introspection – what was the massive hit that year? “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” – and best picture? “Chariots Of Fire”. Slightly more upbeat approach to storytelling, right? I posted this as one of the great DePalma thrillers from that part of his career….he’s one of the greatest, and John Travolta and Nancy Allen have never been better!

    https://johnrieber.com/2012/03/13/carrie-and-more-5-classic-brian-depalma-thrillers/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for you comment, and the link too, John. This film vanished at the box office, and I had to search around to find it showing at a London cinema some distance from where I lived at the time.
      I still can’t believe how little attention it gets from critics, and modern audiences.
      (I saw Chariots of Fire too, and really didn’t like it. 🙂 )
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m a big fan of Brian De Palma, especially when it comes to this type of film. I have “Blow Out” on DVD, as well as: “Sisters” / “Dressed to Kill” / “Body Double” / “Raising Cain” / “Femme Fatale.” I also own “Carrie” and “Mission to Mars,” but they belong in a different category. I’ve seen (and should own) “Obsession” / “The Fury” / “Mission: Impossible” / “The Untouchables” / “Carlito’s Way” / “The Black Dahlia.”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Of course this was a much more accessible re-make of Blow-Up. My native Philadelphian observation: The main character runs from 30th Street station to Suburban Station/Center City, at least 15 blocks, in a few minutes. To non-natives it looks like the same place. lol

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, and that local information. As Londoner, I spent my life watching films set in that city, with constant geographical errors. So I know exactly what you mean! 🙂
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

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