Blow Out (1981)
Directed by Brian De Palma
Cast: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz, Peter Boyden.
1981 107 minutes
Rated: (for violence and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 1998.
We often hear about and see movies that are an example of style over substance, which is those films that are technically more impressive than the story and characters are. Brian De Palma's "Blow Out," however, is one of the few films I've seen that is a triumph of both style and substance.
"Blow Out" stars John Travolta in one of his best early roles as a sound man for a bunch of B-horror movies. It is in the midst of election season, as well as the 100th-anniversary of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, and while out one night on a bridge recording nighttime sounds, including tree branches hitting each other, leaves rustling, and owls hooing, he witnesses a car blow out, which then plunges off the bridge and into the river. Travolta is able to save the woman inside (Nancy Allen), but the driver, who turns out to be the Governor, is killed. Later, while listening to the accident that he got on tape, he is surprised to hear a bang right before the actual blowout occurred, and becomes convinced it was a conspiracy to kill the Governor. Meanwhile, the infamous Liberty Bell Killer is stalking the women of Philadelphia.
"Blow Out" is a truly virtuoso thriller that is superbly made in all aspects, and includes many purely original and visually stunning moments, including one scene in which, as Travolta slowly replays the sound on the tape, he visualizes where all of the sounds came from. Another impressive moment is the first sequence of the picture, a POV shot in which a killer slowly stalks the residents of a college dorm. And without giving anything away, the last brilliant moment comes in the climax, with a giant American flag hanging in the background. All of the scenes, as well as the rest of the movie, are helped considerably by Pino Donaggio's unforgettable music score.
Another aspect of "Blow Out" that is refreshing is the amount of layers the film piles on. On one hand, it is about a conspiracy. There is also a subplot involving the post-production work of the B-movie they are making. And then there is the subplot involving the Liberty Bell Killer, which leads to a few extremely chilling, suspenseful moments. And there is the political election going on. And the anniversary of the Liberty Bell. And the sweet relationship that develops between Travolta and Allen, who has never been better. By the sound of all of these stories, it may seem like the picture may be overstuffed, but it isn't at all. Instead, all of these different plotlines add to the atmosphere of the film, and makes the movie seem richer and more inventive.
"Blow Out" is one of director De Palma's best films, and ranks right up there with 1976's "Carrie," and 1980's "Dressed to Kill," the former starring Travolta and Allen, and the latter featuring Allen once again. Sadly, De Palma has recently fallen on hard times with the recent disappointment, "Snake Eyes," but "Blow Out" is an example of how great De Palma can really be.
© 1998 Dustin Putman