Blow Out (1981)

Sound guys never get the respect they deserve.

Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound-effects technician for movies who, while recording sounds for a low-budget slasher film, mistakenly captures audio evidence of an assassination involving a presidential hopeful. While Jack feels as if he may be a bit paranoid, especially from what everyone around him says, he still believes it to be true and makes it his mission to stop this assassination at once. Along the way, he meets Sally Bedina (Nancy Allen), a young lady who befriends Jack and gives him a second chance at life, even if looming under the horizon is someone looking to kill both of them.

No matter what Brian De Palma does as a director, he will always been known as one of the more successful Alfred Hitchcock impersonators, but you have to think about it: Any director that laces themselves into a dark and twisted tale of suspense and paranoia, is essentially doing Hitchcock, right? Well, yes, and kinda no. De Palma is obviously channeling Hitchcock here, but he lets it all work out on his own just by having an underlining sense of dread and tension throughout. Right from the goofy first-shot to the painfully depressing last one, we are immersed in this story as we have no idea how everything is going to turn out.

Who's worse to work with? Celebrities, or owls?
Who’s worse to work with? Celebrities, or owls?

You could say that’s how Hitchcock movies are, but by the same token, so are De Palma’s movies, too.

In fact, it’s the great ones that really keep you on-edge, which Blow Out definitely is.

Instead of just letting the story tell itself off, De Palma allows himself to bring out some real tricks up his sleeve. The camera is constantly moving around in this film to give us this frantic feel that Jack is going through but even when it isn’t, it still had me on the tip-of-my-toes, because there’s still an air of tension. Scenes like when Jack is deconstructing the film to match the sounds with the images is a surprisingly neat scene because of how much detail De Palma layered this scene and to also show easily manipulated film and audio can be, just at the switch of a button. But other times when the camera is moving, it really messes with your head like one scene where the camera is going around on a 360 axis in Jack’s studio as he is frantically looking around for his lost footage that seems to have been replaced, or taken from him. It’s a cool scene that shows you what De Palma can and could do with the most generic plots, just by tilting the camera one way or another.

And sure, you could call them “gimmicks”, but they really do help keep this unpredictable story moving, even when it seems like De Palma himself wants to take some time out of the mystery and build characters. Which wouldn’t have been a problem so much had the characters been all the neat in the first place; like, say, for instance, Nancy Allen’s Sally. Trust me, I know why she’s in this movie and why De Palma feels the endless need to have her role mean something in the greater-scheme, but really, her hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold character is stale and Allen, at times at least, wasn’t always the best actress to call on for these sorts of things.

That Brian De Palma: A true American.
That Brian De Palma: A true American.

But of course, with one bad performance, comes one, very good one and this is where John Travolta comes in.

Travolta does a great job letting us feel the type of paranoia and craziness that’s going inside of his head throughout this whole mystery, however, what really makes this character and performance work is how they treat him. When you usually have a hero-like character in these films, they are treated like latter-day Saints that can almost do no wrong whatsoever and always fight the good battle. The difference here is that this character, no matter how much evidence he proves or no matter what he says, he’s always looked at as a bit of a conspiracy-nut just because he’s a little strange. Never has a film really made us look at a hero, the same way as everybody else did in the film, quite like this before and it works in making us realize that maybe we can’t be too sure that he’ll eventually come out on top after all. And if he does, at what cost? It’s a great piece of character development that De Palma proves he can do very well, and Travolta gives off his best performance of the whole 80’s decade, his career almost died in.

Thankfully though, thirteen years later, he was saved.

Also, bonus points for being in Philly and featuring a kick-ass villainous performance from John Lithgow. Honestly, you can’t have enough movies set in Philly, nor can you have enough of John Lithgow just being a scary and sinister human specimen that we definitely know he’s capable of being.

Consensus: Despite the usual missteps found in some of De Palma’s work, Blow Out is an intense, unpredictable, weird and downright bleak conspiracy-thriller that never clues you in on what to think or believe, but for all of the right reasons.

8.5 / 10

John was still very confused in 1981.
John was still very confused in 1981.

Photos Courtesy of: Criterion, One Perfect Shot


  1. Great movie, loved your review. All three of his Hitchcock-like murder thrillers are wonderful. While Dressed to Kill and Body Double seem to rate high with viewers, I don’t think Blow Out ever got the respect it deserves.

  2. It’s not just Hitchcock de Palma is imitating but it’s a really a variation of Blow-Up by Michelangelo Antonioni as well as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation which was also inspired by Blow-Up. Those 3 films together would make a hell of a triple-feature.

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