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April 29, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #69 - Blow Out

It's only fitting that Midnight Movie of the Week #69 (insert adolescent chuckles here) is directed by Brian De Palma.  He's one of my favorite filmmakers ever, but he's also the dude who showed me how to make Alfred Hitchcock stories into perverted slices of American sleaze that are shockingly palatable.  While I've loved his work ever since I first played my father's ridiculously un-hidden copy of Body Double as a young teen, I've spent the last ten years or so calling Blow Out my favorite of his films. 

In fact, Blow Out is usually something I list among my 20-30 favorite films in general. But it's not like most of my favorite films.  Most of the time I'm like "OMG, I loooooooooooooooovvvvvvvveeeeeee REAR WINDOW!" or "Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww yeah BLUES BROTHERS, homies!" when I talk about some of my favorite films.  But when I talk about Blow Out, I'm all "Oh man, Blow Out. Yeah."  It's not that I love Blow Out that much less than other films, its just that it's hard to get too excited when the film is so heart breaking and powerful.  It's kind of weird to admit it, but Blow Out is one of the few films out there that really gets to me on an emotional level.  And it does so in De Palma's own twisted way.
John Travolta - fresh of his sweathogging and dancing phase - stars as b-movie sound technician Jack Terry who, while recording ambient sounds on a Philadelphia park bridge, witnesses and records an accident that kills a Presidential candidate.  After rescuing a prostitute (Robocop's Nancy Allen) from the wreckage, Terry quickly realizes he's found himself in the middle of something big.  While analyzing his recording of the accident, he becomes convinced that he hears a gunshot before the car's tire blow out.
What follows is one part Jack's descent into madness, one part his courtship of Allen's pro girl, and one part psychotic John Lithgow.  The last part is among the most entertaining bits of the film, as Lithgow offers up a killer who's unnerving due to the disconnect between his efficient demeanor and the violent acts he commits.  The late film sequence in which he stalks a train station whore is incredibly effective thanks to his ability to shift his demeanor on a dime.  Lithgow steals most of the scenes he shows up in, as does Dennis Franz as the seedy photographer who is also involved in the political trickery.
A lot of people hate on Travolta these days, and I've never really understood why.  The guy has had some bad moments - yes, he was in Battlefield Earth - but I've always been a fan.  Maybe it's because I'm madly in love with Welcome Back, Kotter, maybe it's because I prefer thinking fondly of Pulp Fiction over thinking about Lucky Numbers at all.  But other roles aside, I have to say that his work in Blow Out is one of my favorite performances by anyone in any movie I love.  Travolta brings a youthful passion to the role that makes me smile as he bounces from trying to be charming to being totally paranoid and everywhere in between.  At 27 years old, Travolta took on one of his first dark and serious roles, and his range of emotion throughout the film still impresses me.  The performances isn't an Oscar grabbing one, but he's definitely involved in the role and his ability to express emotions that match what's going on around him really sell the film's drama.
But the real star of the film, as is generally the case with De Palma's films, is the use of the camera and De Palma's control over what we see on screen.  With help from the cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond - who had previously shot the likes of The Deer Hunter, Deliverance, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind - De Palma manages to use his trademark split screen techniques without actually splitting the screen with a line down the middle.  The early film scene in which Travolta's Terry records audio of the children of the night is one of my favorite bits of filmmaking in all of his work, as he methodically brings us closer to Travolta's character, then steps back gradually to reveal what he's filming in the right side of the frame.  As the peaceful scene lets us experience the sounds of the night, it slowly brings forth the frogs or owls that are being recorded, which gets the viewer caught up in trying to solve simple mysteries just before it reveals the film's bigger intrigue.  Several similar scenes put an up close Travolta in half the frame while something he's considering appears in the other half, and Zsigmond and De Palma create a lot of interest in Jack's thought process without relying on dialogue.
As a horror fan, I also feel like I have to discuss the opening sequence, which shows us what a Halloween-esque slasher film would look like if filmed by De Palma.  This sequence, which is revealed to be part of the cheap horror film Jack is working on, is a magnificent tease to get us interested in the film, and scenes throughout the film in which Jack and the film's director deal with the production's sound problems provide some moments of comedy within the film, but they all lead up to the final scene which provides a fantastic bit of cynicism and a powerful resolution to Jack's journey through his predicament.
Blow Out has now been meticulously restored by the Criterion Collection, who have once again reminded me that they occasionally have strokes of brilliance between their bouts of pretentiousness.  (Rest assured, the screen caps I'm sharing here are from the old MGM DVD.)  It's awesome to see this tribute to De Palma's film, which holds up still as a powerful favorite.  Like Hitchcock's Vertigo before it, this is one of those rare films that holds me in a trance for a couple of hours before leaving me a bit exasperated.  But in both cases, these films that wear me out and leave me a bit brokenhearted remind me of just how powerful movies can be when the stories aren't simple crowd pleasers.  As it looks at prostitution, sleazy cinema production and political corruption, among other things, Blow Out never ceases to make me think about just how engaging a dark thriller can be when done right.


Chris Hewson said...

I think the main reason that people hate on Travolta, other than all of the travolting movies he's appeared in in the last decade or so, is because he's such a stalwart scientoligist. Though he's not an assholish human being as much as Tom Cruise is, who I can barely stand in anything.

Bärrÿ said...

Thank you for posting a piece on Blow Out. I occasionally bring up that film when talking about the few really awesome Travolta films. I just heard about the Criterion edition last week and threw on my Amazon wishlist instantly.

Hell, whenever I think of films like Old Dogs or Look Who's Talking Now, I like to remember that at one point Travolta starred in this film and Pulp Fiction. Perhaps, to a lesser extent, Look Who's Talking even counts.

R.D. Penning said...

I generally like Travolta as a badguy, but Lithgow rocks it in this! It is kind of a pre-curser to what he was able to do on Dexter.

Favorite Travolta films are:
Be Cool
The Punisher
and The Devil's Rain!!! hahaha

Review Cliche Bot said...

Review is missing the obligatory Antonioni's Blow Up reference. Does not compute.

A hero never dies said...

Travolta's best performance by far for me, ordered this blu ray from Amazon. Great review.