• Can you imagine how this must have sounded in 1980? Brian De Palma is remaking/updating Antonioni’s Blow-Up? but calling it “Blow Out” about a tire blow out- hahaha.
  • Blow Out may not only be worthy to Antonioni’s film- but surpass it. And it is by all accounts the De Palma film where just about everything work out swimmingly—technical prowess, a riveting story– sonic boom-level cinematic virtuoso flourishes aplenty.
  • The film opens with a point of view Steadicam tracking shot (run by Garret Brown- the Steadicam inventor who worked on Bound for Glory, Rocky, Marathon Man and… yes.. The Shining). This opening sort of nods to Psycho, Deep Red, Halloween and the slasher subgenre and winks at De Palma’s own Dressed to Kill from just the year before. It is a spectacular sequence to open the film (and it is also lurid in case you forgot you were watching a De Palma film). The shot marks the beginning of De Palma’s love affair with the Steadicam as well.

Shortly after the opening sequence, film sound man Jack (John Travolta) goes out on a bridge at night to capture sound for his work. He overhears two lovers with his sound equipment, and this undoubtedly feels like Coppola’s own sort of spin on Blow-Up – the 1974 masterpiece The Conversation– a film about surveillance (Antonioni’s film is more existential in aim). De Palma use a split diopter of Travolta on the bridge and another one at the 11-minute mark with the owl (both terrific). De Palma uses jump cuts to simulate sound traveling (going directly from medium close up to long shot)- brilliant. Like Hitchcock, De Palma is a master technician that tried to translate everything cinematically.

  • Jack witnesses an accident (?) and rescues Sally (poor Nancy Allen) from the car. This puts the wheels in motion for a marvelous sort of Parallax View conspiracy film- signs to a grassy knoll, Chappaquiddick and Zapruder (mentioned in the text actually). On top of this there is a sort of serial killer cat and mouse film with John Lithgow’s Burke character.
  • The setting is political—Liberty Day in Philadelphia. De Palma, apparently because of influx of budget for the project after landing big star John Travolta (he had come a long way as a star since being in Carrie in 1976) for the lead, goes absolutely bananas with the glorious possibilities of the color design throughout the film. He takes the red, white and blue motif- and carries it for the entire running time (foreshadowing the epic climax fireworks). Blow Out is a major triumph of color use in cinema. I adore Ebert (and he has an excellent 4-star strong review on the film), but he has 800 words and never mentions “color”, “red”, “white” or “blue”. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/blow-out
  • De Palma is the auteur most associated with the split diopter, and this is the film where he uses it the most (and most brilliantly). He is also the auteur most associated with he split screen (these two stylistic tools are not dissimilar actually) and uses this early on with Jack and Sally on the phone (holding red and blue phones).

De Palma is also the auteur most associated with he split screen (these two stylistic tools are not dissimilar actually) and uses this early on with Jack and Sally on the phone (holding red and blue phones).

Another sublime split diopter at the 18-minute mark with Travolta eavesdropping in left profile while two men discuss the coverup. Spying/eavesdropping is a perfect use for a the diopter.

The hotel room where Jack and Nancy go together after the hospital is a stunner of a set piece. The wallpaper is red, white and blue patterned, the blanket is blue, the phone is red, you name it- the ash tray—even Travolta’s jeep is a deep blue (he will take that jeep on a chase later with all red and blue cars).

  • Next De Palma uses closeups of Travolta to recreate the scene of the accident in his mind. This is a nothing scene on the written page, but De Palma orchestrates it all so masterfully.
  • If there is a flaw in the film, it is with the acting. I would listen to an argument in support of Travolta- but there is no debate on Nancy Allen. She is bad here- doing a weak Mia Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose (yes, this is before Woody’s film) sort of voice. She reads every line without a facial recognition or tone that recognizes the context. She was married to De Palma at the time. If Travolta comes with the budget, then that’s fine, I would not want De Palma to make this film without the budget he needed to pull of the visuals, but if we’re talking 1981 I cannot help want to take Harrison Ford and Karen Allen from Raiders and put them in these two roles (even if Blow Out is probably the slightly better film even without them).
  • Travolta’s Jack in a red sweater at the 31-minute mark, his boss in a blue one. The characters are always in these colors.
  • Travolta’s Jack not only had the audio from the accident but gets the little box picture frames and essentially makes a movie of the event. So, if Antonioni’s film uses a photograph, and Coppola’s is the audio mix (Walter Murch and Francis together)—De Palma’s is a movie. Jack is combining the frames of the photo and the audio to create cinema- and who better to do this than one of the best technicians this side of Hitchcock? Again, the story is about the mechanism of the politics (which actually gets very high brow and deep for a De Palma film)—very different (and more tangible) than what Antonioni is exploring.
  • Another split diopter with the tape recorder front right at the 41-minute mark- surveillance being the reason. Yet another very strong one at the mall at the 46-minute mark with Lithgow’s character stalking the Allen look alike in this marvelous red, white and blue outfit. The cement mixers on the street are red, white and blue. There is red light pouring in on the hotel room where Dennis Franz’s character is holed up.
  • The film even has comedy with the B-movie screams of the girls auditioning for the movie from the point of view opening.
  • At the 61-minute mark De Palma uses Hitchcock’s 360-degree Vertigo shot at Jack’s office. De Palma whips it around several times (in an unbroken long take) as Jack distressfully scurries around, dismantling his place (like Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul in The Conversation), phones going off in the background cluttering the audio.

Another stylistic touch from the Hitchcock tool bag- the overhead shot—used several times including the 64-minute mark of his office now totally disheveled.

overhead again– with red light pouring in from the window

  • Lithgow’s character front left eavesdropping on the sailor and hooker (another Nancy Allen look alike who is wearing red, white and blue) at the 84-minute mark.
  • A tennis shot- De Palma’s camera pan ponging back and forth on the row of phone booths at the train station. The Nancy Allen look alike has a blue tooth brush—the string of school girls are decked out in very noticeably red outfits at the station.
  • At the 91-minute mark the impressive chase starts- and this is just an example smooth, precision filmmaking at its finest. It is really better than that actually because during the rooftop sequences De Palma is bouncing red and blue lights (from the fireworks) everywhere. Allen and Lithgow are bathed in it. De Palma uses slow-motion (he uses it as well as anyone has) with the massive Patton opening-like flag in the background at the 99-minute mark.

At the 102-minute mark De Palma uses a low angle to capture the fireworks behind Travolta’s Jack—a superior cinematic painting using the full 2.39 : 1 wide frame- utterly dazzling.

  • A masterpiece