“That’s a terrible scream. Jack, what cat did you have to strangle to get that?” asks the sound mixer. Jack Terry responds, “The one you hired. That’s her scream.” The mixer replies, “You mean you didn’t dub that?”
After his successful Hitchcock homage Dressed To Kill in 1980, Brian De Palma would follow it up just one year later with Blow Out, an homage to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. De Palma’s latest would reunite him with John Travolta and Nancy Allen (both had appeared in De Palma’s Carrie five years earlier, and Allen was also married to De Palma at the time). This intriguing assassination thriller would also mark Travolta’s last good movie until Amy Heckerling’s Look Who’s Talking in 1989. I first caught Blow Out on cable several years ago and again on blu-ray when it was released by the Criterion Collection, but it wasn’t until a few months ago that I finally saw it on the big screen at the Museum of the Moving Image in a restored DCP. It looked better than ever, and it was a thrilling experience.
1981’s Blow Out follows a sound effects technician from a B movie company in Philadelphia who saves a woman from drowning after a car accident one night only to discover later via his sound recording that the car’s tire was actually shot out. Realizing what had actually occurred was a political assassination, he teams with the woman to acquire undeniable proof before they become the next targets. De Palma brought together a terrific ensemble that included Travolta (as Jack Terry), Allen (as Sally Bedina), John Lithgow (as Burke), Dennis Franz (as Manny Karp), Curt May (as Donahue), Peter Boyden (as Sam), John Aquino (as Detective Mackey), and John McMartin (as Lawrence Henry). Travolta gives one of his best performances as Jack, a sound effects man whose search for a usable scream for a horror movie sends him down a path that puts his life in danger. Travolta brings determination, ingenuity, and vulnerability to the role and it stands as one of his finest. Allen is unforgettable and heartbreaking as Sally, Lithgow is dangerously creepy (and at times hilarious when explaining certain decisions he’s made), and Franz is simultaneously lovable yet sleazy.
The screenplay by De Palma explores how guilt becomes a strong motivator to right past wrongs. In addition to the inspiration by Blow-Up and The Conversation, the JFK assassination and Watergate scandal appear to have influenced the film’s story as well, and it’s fascinating how De Palma uses a single sound effect to serve as the film’s MacGuffin. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography reflects the tone of the film (my favorite lit scene is the finale at Penn’s Landing), and makes great use of a split-focus diopter lens in a number of scenes, including the outdoor sound recording and hospital scenes (the lens allows objects in the foreground and background to be in sharp focus). Paul Sylbert’s production design makes great use of actual locations in Philadelphia (the 30th St. Amtrak station, Market Street, Penn’s Landing, etc.), and Paul Hirsch’s editing moves the film along at a fine pace. Pino Donaggio delivers a thrilling score anchored by a melancholic love theme. De Palma’s Blow Out is an engaging political thriller filled with memorable performances, a shocking finale, and a tense sound design that is used very effectively.