Combustible Celluloid
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With: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz, Peter Boyden, Curt May, John Aquino, John McMartin, Deborah Everton, J. Patrick McNamara, Missy Cleveland, Roger Wilson, Lori-Nan Engler
Written by: Brian De Palma
Directed by: Brian De Palma
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 108
Date: 07/24/1981

Blow Out (1981)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Sounding Off

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I often have a hard time defending my admiration for Brian De Palma. In this country he's considered a rip-off artist who pillages from Hitchcock, Kubrick, Antonioni and Michael Powell, as well as a misogynist and a violent creep. It gets especially difficult when discussing such obvious turkeys as The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and last year's Mission to Mars. But in France he's considered a genius, a visual stylist of the first degree (the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinema voted his film Carlito's Way the best film of the 1990s).

If one can get past the shaky plots of some of his films (Snake Eyes, for example), he proves he's a man wrestling with some serious demons on film, even more so than Hitchcock ever did. He's obsessed with voyeurism, sneaking peaks at stuff we're not supposed to see, and the movies themselves are a voyeuristic medium. He's a natural born filmmaker.

Of all De Palma's movies, Blow Out is the one I most like to see over and over. It's a clever updating of Antonioni's Blow Up and Coppola's The Conversation with John Travolta as a movie sound effects man who accidentally records an auto crash that may have been a murder attempt. Nancy Allen (playing a hooker again) survives the crash and now knows too much. A young Dennis Franz plays a sleazy photographer whose snapshots prove Travolta's theory. And John Lithgow plays a "strangler" who complicates things. Though Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction made Travolta a star, this may be his finest performance as an actor.

The pure physical use of audio and visual is astounding, including the constant manipulation and repeating of sound to suggest menace, as well as visual equivalents, like doubling and echoing. Flushed with the box-office success of Dressed to Kill, De Palma was allowed to use the appropriate but downbeat ending he wanted for Blow Out, which subsequently guaranteed its failure. It remains one of his greatest efforts.

Mastered in 1:2.40 widescreen, viewers can now see Blow Out the way it was intended; this is one film that is virtually impossible to sit through pan-and-scanned. MGM's 2001 DVD came with a trailer, optional French and Spanish subtitles and an optional Spanish soundtrack. In 2011, the Criterion Collection issued a deluxe new DVD and a new Blu-Ray edition. New extras include an interview with De Palma (conducted by filmmaker Noah Baumbach), and an interview with Nancy Allen, as well as one with steadicam man Garrett Brown. There's a collection of gorgeous on-set photos by Louis Goldman, and a trailer. The liner notes booklet includes a vintage review by Pauline Kael, one of De Palma's staunchest defenders, as well as a new essay by one of Kael's disciples, the wonderful critic Michael Sragow.

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