Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Blow Out



Blow Out (1981)
Starring John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz

Alfred Hitchcock passed away in 1980 and with him ended De Palma’s rather blatant homage/ripoffs of his work. With Blow Out, De Palma attempted an American remake of Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 Blowup. The picture leans much more in the direction of the big Hollywood pictures De Palma would go on to make in the 1980s and 1990s, yet it also marks his move away from the psycho thriller. Here the murders going on are linked to political conspiracy, not a mentally disturbed individual working on their own, though the murderer is definitely mentally disturbed.

Set in Philadelphia during the 100th anniversary of the Liberty Bell’s last ringing, the film follows Jack (Travolta) a sound editor for B-horror/slash nudie pictures. Jack was once in the military and worked as a cop wiring informants to crack down on the mob. The end of his career came when one of the informants was caught and killed because Jack couldn’t get to him in time. One night as Jack is out at a local park recording some samples he sees and ends up recording the audio of a car accident. He rescues the girl inside, who is still alive, and finds the driver dead. Later, at the hospital he learns the driver was a presidential candidate and the police are very eager to make Jack and the girl, Sally (Allen) forget what they saw. Using the photos of a private eye, that happened to be at the park, and his own audio recordings, Jack makes his own film of the incident. What he discovers is that the car’s tire didn’t blow out as the police are claiming but that someone fired from the bushes and shot it out. However, there is a man (Lithgow) who has been hired to kill any and all witnesses to the incident.

The film is chock full of references to other pictures and while it is not one of de Palma’s best it still has those individual sequences that are amazingly put together. The opening of the film is a blatant reference to the popular slasher flicks of the time, in particular Halloween. One long take from the POV of a killer stalking a sorority is slowly zoomed out to reveal Jack and his employer working on the sound for their newest picture. The entire conspiracy set-up is a hodgepodge of real life historical assassination and plot elements from the mid-20th century. The film Jack puts together is a parallel to the Zapruder film. The car crash with the drowning girl inside a direct reference to Teddy Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. And the desperation of the powers that be to cover everything up is deeply linked to the still linger negative sentiments manifested by Watergate in the 1970s.

One of the best parts of the film is that de Palma keeps it simple. When dealing with political conspiracy it could be very easy for the story to spiral out of control as more twists and sinister figures are added. Instead we never really get the specifics of why this potential candidate was killed, we just keep focused on Jack and Sally and really only know as much as they do about what is going on. The cast is fairly small and its only Jack that we learn any real background about. The mysterious hired killer played by John Lithgow is given all the character development we need. His precision and adherence to duty hint at his past as a military man or a member of the CIA but we never need that spelled out to us. There’s no great speech at the end either where everything is spelled out to make sure the audience got it. De Palma seems to trust our intelligence that we picked up on the things he was saying.

While not my favorite of what I’ve seen so far, Blow Out is definitely one of the tightest, leanest pictures of De Palma’s. He delivers just enough of every element that it never sags in the middle. It’s definitely not something you haven’t seen before in terms of the plot but its those elements that have been retread presented by a master filmmaker. It’s also a perfect example of how to remake a film without copying it beat for beat. De Palma takes the almost wordless Blowup, where the murder is kept completely obscured and vague, and makes a truly American version that reflected the current mood towards the upper echelons of power at the time.

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