"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

DVD of the Week: Blow Out: Criterion Collection

Time has been kind to Brian De Palma and his films. When he rose to prominence and made some of his most memorable films in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the director was criticized for making schlocky horror films (The Fury) and, most damning of all, accused of being a Hitchcock wannabe (Dressed to Kill). Blow Out (1981) was no different as his detractors regarded it as a rip-off of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966), which had already been Americanized, to a certain degree, by Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) to great acclaim. Blow Out also came out at the tail-end of the paranoid conspiracy thriller subgenre that flourished in the ‘70s thanks to the Watergate scandal with the likes of The Parallax View (1974) and aforementioned Coppola film.

De Palma was seen as crashing the party late and continuing his infatuation with Hitchcock. Ardent De Palma supporter Pauline Kael gave Blow Out a glowing review and proclaimed it as his best film yet. Time has been kind to the film and it is now widely regarded as one of his very best, counting Quentin Tarantino among its most passionate admirers. The Criterion Collection has given the film their deluxe treatment by producing an impressive new transfer and several fascinating extras that will be pure catnip to De Palma’s fans.

In a sly reference to some of the horror films he made in the past, De Palma starts Blow Out with a film within a film – a low budget slasher film with the requisite T&A and blood that also utilizes an impressive Steadicam technique that cheekily thumbs it nose at John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a smart sound-effects technician wasting his talents on schlock like Co-Ed Frenzy. The film’s director is unimpressed with the stock library sounds being used and tells Jack to go out and create some better ones.

Later that night, Jack is out recording sounds and witnesses what appears to be a car accident. A tire blow out causes the car to crash into a nearby creek. Jack leaps into action and is able to rescue a woman from the submerged vehicle. Her companion is not so lucky. It turns out that he’s Governor George McRyan, a Presidential hopeful and she is Sally (Nancy Allen), a prostitute seemingly in the wrong place at the wrong time. After Jack finds out that it was McRyan who died, he goes over the sounds he recorded that night and realizes that the governor didn’t die by accident – someone shot out the tire of his car and caused it to crash. With Sally’s help, Jack uncovers a conspiracy to kill McRyan. The only problem is that the same person that killed him also wants to cover their tracks and this involves eliminating loose ends like Sally. Enter Burke (John Lithgow), a sociopathic assassin who goes after her.

So many of De Palma’s films feature obsessive protagonists – think of Craig Wasson’s B-actor in Body Double (1984) obsessed with the murder he witnessed, or lawman Eliot Ness in The Untouchables (1987), determined to bring Al Capone to justice. Blow Out’s Jack gets so caught up in McRyan’s murder that he assembles his own Zapruder film by syncing his audio with stills taken by a low-rent photographer (played with sleazy charm by Dennis Franz). This film is a potent reminder of just how great an actor John Travolta used to be. With Saturday Night Fever (1978), Urban Cowboy (1980), and Blow Out, he had a fantastic run of playing fascinating, fully-developed yet flawed characters. And then something happened – maybe it was the debacle that was Staying Alive (1983) – and he started playing it safe, appearing in trivial commercial fare. He’s so good in Blow Out as an expert sound-man with a troubled past. De Palma’s screenplay does an excellent job of providing the motivation for Jack’s actions and Travolta’s natural charisma gets us to care about what happens to him.

De Palma pulls out all of his stylistic tricks (Steadicam shots, split screens, deep focus photography) to craft one hell of an engrossing thriller. This includes an exciting car chase through the busy downtown streets of Philadelphia during a Liberty Day celebration. He grew up in the city and utilizes key locations for maximum effect so that it is almost a character unto itself. Blow Out really is one of the best examples of De Palma’s genre sensibilities merging with his artistic aspirations. The end result is one of his signature films.

Special Features:

Fans of this film can finally get rid of the bare bones edition that was released years ago. In addition to the extras on the DVD, the accompanying booklet features Pauline Kael’s original review and a reproduction of the magazine in the film that published the photographs of McRyan’s car crash among several other goodies.

“Noah Baumbach Interviews Brian De Palma” features the New York filmmaker talking to De Palma for almost an hour. He talks about the genesis of Blow Out. He also touches upon using the Steadicam for the first time, the film’s score, various key scenes, and recounts some fantastic filming anecdotes in this excellent conversation between two filmmakers.

“Nancy Allen Interview” features the veteran actress talking about meeting Travolta for the first time on Carrie (1976) and her impressions of him. She recalls her initial reaction to the script for Blow Out and how she approached her character. Interestingly, Allen wasn’t going to do the film but Travolta wanted her to do it.

“Garrett Brown Interview” features the inventor of the Steadicam system recalling how he shot the cheesy horror film at the beginning of Blow Out. He also talks about and demonstrates how one works. Brown comes across as an engaging and candid guy.

“Louis Goldman Photographs” is a collection of stills taken on the set and for publicity purposes.

In a real treat for De Palma fans, his 1967 experimental film Murder a la Mod is included in its entirety. Like Blow Out, the film is a thriller that takes place in the filmmaking world. It is interesting to see the director’s emerging style still in its infancy and how the film is very much of its time.

Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.



  1. Fine look at this De Palma classic, J.D. And great to see it given the Criterion treatment. It's so deserving. Thanks, my friend.

  2. Yeah, great review J.D. My copy is in the mail right now, hopefully to be here in the next day or so, and I'm super anxious to dive into what appears to be another wonderful package from Criterion. This is easily one of my favorite De Palma's, and I haven't seen it in some time so I'm eager to revisit it. And I've never seen Murder a la Mod, which sounds fascinating, so I'm really looking forward to that.

  3. Great review, J.D. - I've got to get a copy of this disc! Blow Out has been a favorite of mine since I first saw it in the early '80s on the ABC Friday Night Movie. By and large, the political content went over my head but the bleak ending really struck me. When I caught with it again years later, my mind was blown by all the details that I'd missed as a kid.

  4. J.D.

    I've never seen the film, but it's funny you cover De Palma.

    I was just having a discussion the other day about him with someone and two of my favorites are The Untouchables, and the one that followed that I love, Casualties Of War. Great films.

    I know you did an excellent write up on The Untouchables. Maybe you can take a look at the aforementioned 1989 classic with Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn. Great stuff.

    Take care and thank you for your always insightful analysis on these great directors,

  5. le0pard13:

    Thank you, my friend. I really dig this film and so happy that Criterion got to give it their usual sterling treatment.


    You will really dig this new edition. All sorts of goodies to check out. Criterion really did a nice job on this one.

    This is also one of my fave De Palma's... maybe my all-time fave. MURDER A LA MOD is interesting. I don't know if I'd watch it again any time soon but it's intriguing to see De Palma's style in its infancy.

    Jeff Allard:

    Agreed about the bleak ending. It stays with you long after the credits end. And I also like how De Palma integrates the political message along with all the thriller stuff. He gets just the right mix. Thanks for commenting.

    The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    You should really check this film out if you get the chance. Definitely one of De Palma's best.

    CASUALTIES OF WAR is a weird one for me. I do like the way De Palma shot it but the subject matter is so bleak and emotionally draining that I don't watch it all that often. Also, I find that Sean Penn tends to chew up the scenery a little too much for my liking. I did pick up the special edition that came out a few years ago and it has aged surprisingly well. I really should give it another go.

    As always, thanks for stopping by and for the kind words.

  6. A nice write-up, J.D.! I just ordered this and am definitely looking forward to revisiting it and seeing MURDER A LA MOD for the first time.

  7. Sean Gill:

    Thank you! I think you will dig MURDER. It is quite an interesting bit o' cinema to be sure.

  8. I watched the Criterion disc of this the other week through Netflix. It was my first time seeing it and I wasn't impressed with the story, but man, it gets an A+ for style. Such a beautiful film. I'll definitely be purchasing the Criterion at some point.

  9. Aaron:

    On the surface it seems like pretty standard stuff but the more times I watch it the more I find myself caring about the characters and enjoying the way De Palma weaves in the political stuff. He doesn't hit you over th head with it per se but it's there all the same.

  10. I just love "BLow Out" It's such a chilling movie you can almost feel the tension physically. I like that you mentioned "the conversation" (which I also love) as the two are most certainly estranged brothers. The Travolta performance is astounding, and does as you suggest, make us wonder what happened.

  11. Brent:

    Good to see another fan of this film. Travolta is so good in this film, 'tis true. Watching it again reminded me of just how impressive he was in this film.