‘Why does everything have to be a conspiracy?’ asks a character in Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller, a notable flop back in the day, now better remembered than most films of its era. Blow Out was everything audiences didn’t want in 1981; despite the presence of hot new star John Travolta, the political allusions, downbeat tone and nihilistic ending were completely at odds with the feel-good, you can-do it, self-actualisation vibe popular at the time. Since then, cultural mavens like Quentin Tarantino have eulogized the influence of Blow Out, which itself was heavily influenced by 1966’s Blow Up, but De Palma’s film occupies its own unique corner in pop culture.
Blow Out starts with a fake-out; we are watching a over-stuffed slasher film called Co-ed Frenzy, only to find that we’re actually in a dubbing studio where soundman Jack Terry is trying to figure out how to get the perfect scream on the soundtrack. That’s an issue that Terry will have resolved by the final scene, but not in a way that brings him any joy; quite the opposite. Terry is out one night with a powerful directional mic with which he records the sounds of sinister owl wildlife near a remote bridge, but accidentally captures the sound of a murder. And not just any murder, but the demise of a potential presidential candidate; Terry’s sound expertise enables him to prove through meticulous reconstruction that a shot was fired, and the tyre of the limo was blown-out, causing it to crash. Terry also manages to rescue Sally (Nancy Allen) from the sinking car, and is able to convince her of his theory, but the authorities are keen to close off loose ends…
‘You got a choice. You can be crazy or dead. Either will do,’ is a typically caustic line of dialogue from Travolta as Terry; the star does some of his best work as the obsessive, intense technician who slowly begins to realise the deadly mechanisms of the world round about him. An early John Lithgow makes for a horrific killer who is homing in on Sally, killing a number of innocent women first in order to disguise his political gun-for-hire acts as the actions of a serial killer, while Dennis Franz plays a pimp with astonishingly poor personal hygiene. Meanwhile, De Palma goes all in on style, with scuzzy NYC locations, creative split-screen usage and wild camera moves; without a doubt, Blow Out is one of the best looking movies of the 80’s.
Blow Out is now considered one of the all-time greats because it’s so deeply, unremittingly dark in what it observes about human nature, and what’s remarkable is how De Palma uses the film-making technique to uncover that weakness in the human soul. Terry understands that he has a small part to play in creating the fake reality of the movies, but his brush with dark forces leaves him scrambling to use all his technical abilities to capture one brief moment of reality. That gift leads him to the starkest tragedy; Terry fails in spectacular style, against one of the film’s many historically inspired backdrops. The final blow is that Terry’s experience haunts him for the rest of his days; the scream he listens to in the shocking final scene might as well be his own.