It’s conspiratorial skulduggery in Brian De Palma’s crafty thriller
Paranoia is one of the cornerstones of the political/conspiracy thriller, especially those made in the 1970s. Think of all those films where the lead character stumbles onto a secret/witnesses a crime/winds up being the victim of mistaken identity. They become caught in the machinations of a convoluted, nightmarish narrative and stumble out the other side with their lives turned upside down and inside out, their former sense of stability shaken, their beliefs shattered, their trust in others erased.
Already burned by the Kennedy assassinations, ongoing Cold War paranoia, the Vietnam war, the Watergate scandal and so on, the United States during this time was conflicted, bruised, humiliated, at war with itself and distrustful. To put it bluntly, the ’60s dream was over. This was reflected in some of the most important movies of the time – All the President’s Men, The Conversation, Chinatown (set in the 1930’s, but a ’70s movie through and through), The Parallax View and many more – films where the little guy was being stepped on, where the powers-that-be were malevolent and had the means to silence any dissenters, where corruption and greed were the driving force. It’s amazing that some of these films were as successful as they were, given their bleakness, but clearly audiences were hungry for this kind of thing. It was topical, current and unavoidable.
Even as the summer blockbusters started to take over from the mid-70s, you still had, in monster movies like Jaws and Alien, supporting elements such as corrupt government officials, covert spies or heartless corporations. Still those films were an impending sign of the times – yes, the Mayor of Amity and ‘The Company’ were arguably the real villains of the show, but let’s be honest, the main attractions were the title antagonists. Also, while there were the expected cover-ups and mildly sinister going-ons in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the overall the vibe of that movie was one of hope and magic. Things were changing – the light was seeping in.
Yet the hangover of the 1970s was still lurking, and even made it into a few films of the next decade. Brian de Palma’s 1981 thriller Blow Out would be one of the final major examples of this, and sadly (but inevitably), it was a failure at the box office, its downbeat stance at odds with the escapist mood of the new decade. It feels like a return to De Palma’s earlier, more politicised work, albeit dressed up in the irresistible cinematic technique and astonishing sweep that his more recent films had revelled in. It remains a magnificent combination of pure entertainment and provocative, topical drama.
Jack Terry : No one wants to know about conspiracy any more!
At the time many critics pointed out that the film’s inciting incident – a fatal car accident involving a politician, recalled the real-life tragedy on Chappaquiddick Island, NJ in 1969 where Ted Kennedy was reported to have accidentally drove his car off of a bridge and into a pond, after which he abandoned the scene and failed to report what had happened. The car’s other occupant, the political campaigner Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned after she was unable to escape the submerged vehicle. The specific details of the incident have been the subject of much debate, rumour and cover-up theories – and it’s this kind of speculation – the suggestion that there was more to an event that meets the eye (or in this case ear) – that fuels the plot of Blow Out.
It is also rooted in cinematic history – as well as the by-now expected Hitchockian touches in its drawn-out suspense sequences, the film’s very title is a clear nod to Antonioni’s hip, enigmatic 1966 thriller Blow-Up, and indeed the plot hooks of both are virtually identical – an incident is captured via technology, which is then obsessively pored-over and investigated, although in the earlier film, it was a photograph that was the evidence, not a sound recording, although photographs do end up assisting the investigation. It does wrong-foot us from the start, however. Audiences at the time probably wondered if they’d stumbled into a screening of the latest Friday the 13th or Halloween rip-off instead of the new De Palma film they’d paid to see.
Presumably seeing himself as a cut above the wave of cheap and cheerful slasher movies that were everywhere in 1981, De Palma’s kicks off Blow Out with one of the funniest and most delightful skewerings of the genre you’ll ever see. A heart-beat soundtracks the opening logo, and without warning and no credits we are in classic POV-of-the-killer territory as we spy on a sorority house, the kind only ever seen in films, where almost every occupant is either having sex, masturbating or at the very least doing sexy dancing to what sounds like the lost soundtrack of some porno. Only one student, who’s desperately trying to study, isn’t indulging in sin. I can only presume she’s the final girl who will put an end to this killer. Every cliche in the book is thrown at us – the cheap and tacky music, the lingering looks at nudity, the hapless security guard who gets a knife in the back, the long, slow steadicam POV shots…I mean, I love all of this, but even by 1981, this was already, made-to-order, conveyor-belt stuff. Of course, our killer winds up in the communal showers, where he approaches a blissfully unaware young woman showering herself. We get closer, closer, closer… we open the shower rail, the woman sees us, recoils in horror and then lets out the scream to end all screams!
Oh wait, no she doesn’t.
Less a blood-curdling howl of terror more a hilariously goofy, low-pitched and mannered shriek, it totally ruins whatever suspense had been generated beforehand. We then cut to a chuckling Jack Terry (John Travolta) in the edit suite of a low-budget movie HQ observing the rough cut of Co-Ed Frenzy, for which he is the sound operator. Jack’s job is to locate and record natural sounds for the movies he works on, and the problem is that everything’s starting to sound samey. The same howls of wind, the same creaking doors, the same screams. The film needs a proper scream, one that will terrify its audience.
That night, during an outside recording session, Jack picks up the sound of what seems to be a car accident following a tyre blow out. The car ends up in the nearby river, and by the time Jack has swum underwater to attempt a rescue, the driver is dead and the other occupant close to drowning. Luckily she’s saved, but things get much more complicated when its revealed that the driver was Democratic presidential hopeful George McRyan. Things get suspicious immediately when a friend of McRyan attempts to persuade Jack to keep his mouth shut about the story – it’s better that way, he’s told. No one’s embarrassed, no one’s reputation is tarnished, everyone’s happy.
Yet Jack is convinced there’s more to the event. He believes he heard a gunshot before the sound of the blow out, which would make this ‘accident’ a possible homicide. Armed with his audio evidence, Jack attempts to piece together what really happened, with the help of the survivor of the accident – Sally (Nancy Allen), who we later find out who was hired by McRyan’s rivals to accompany the married McRyan in his car in order to set him up to be blackmailed. Sally has been paid off to leave town, but Jack persuades her to stay so that she can help him in his investigation. However, we also discover that the man hired by McRyan’s rivals to document the incident – the clearly unhinged Burke (John Lithgow) – had disobeyed orders when shooting out the tyre of the car, which accidentally led to McRyan’s death. Now Burke is taking matters into his own hands; tying up all loose ends, removing incriminating evidence and prepared to kill if he has to.
It all leads to a horribly tense final act where Burke, pretending to be an investigative reporter, lures Sally and the all-important audio-visual evidence she’s carrying to a nearby river, where the evidence is destroyed and, despite Jack’s desperate attempt to reach her in time, Sally is murdered. All Jack can do is hear her screams (ironically, she was wearing a wire to ensure her safety), helpless to save her.
Blow Out‘s devastating ending (it never fails to destroy me) is in marked contrast to De Palma’s earlier, most famous epilogues – sure, the likes of Carrie and Dressed to Kill were intense, gripping and disturbing, but there was also a mischievous sense of shock to them, that the director was taking extreme delight in scaring the shit out of us one last time. There is no hand out of the grave or empty nurse’s shoes in Blow Out. As if the film hadn’t built to such a tragic climax already, its post-script remains one of the most haunting, upsetting and fucked-up in cinema history. Capping off the film’s comedic subplot about Jack trying to find the perfect scream for Co-Ed Frenzy‘s shower scene with a ghastly twist, it’s revealed that he has ended up using Sally’s own, final scream for the movie, which was recorded during her murder. Jack’s right – it’s a good one.
You may wonder the thinking behind Jack’s actions – just why would he do this, something so perverse, so disrespectful? Maybe it’s because he can never forgive himself. If only he’d just shut his mouth, if only he’d let Sally go away on the train with her hush-hush money, she’d still be alive. He blames himself. And by putting her scream on the film, he is punishing himself, making sure he never, ever forgets. It’s a deeply masochistic act, and it makes total sense dramatically, even when you’ve composed yourself after experiencing De Palma’s surface-level ingenuity of wrapping up a once-comedic sub-plot in surprisingly disturbing fashion.
The thing is – yes, Jack’s actions did lead, one way or another, to Sally’s death, but he is also a total innocent, he only ever did the right thing. Right from the start, the powers that be want nothing more than for everything to be hushed-up, but Jack wants to tell the truth. But the truth is dismissed as a waste of time. Never mind that it actually happened, here the truth will only embarrass, compromise and cause trouble. In the end, Jack made all the right moral decisions, he stood his ground, he wanted to see corruption overthrown – and this is what happened. It’s so, so unjust, so unfair and from the looks of it, Jack is now utterly broken. He’s been defeated. And when you consider how unsuccessful Blow Out ended up being at the box office, it’s not just Jack who has been crushed. This whole mood of movie-making was also crushed.
All signs seemed to point towards success. Travolta was still a big name, De Palma was riding high off the huge success of Dressed to Kill, Filmways had spent a whopping $8 million on promotion and the reviews were sensationally positive. Unfortunately, the public rejected it – those who had seen it recoiled at the extraordinarily downbeat ending, and that was enough to sink it. It seemed no one wanted to see films like this anymore, no matter how dressed-up in irresistible, spectacular technique they were. The 1980’s were starting to make their mark on cinema, and given that the biggest hit of the year was Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film made with just as much technical ingenuity but with far more joie de vivre, escapism, and of course, good winning over evil (even God gets in on the act), it’s no surprise that the likes of Blow Out were, well.. out.
The downbeat ending, the one that dares to not see its heroes ride into the sunset, is always a risky proposition in Hollywood, where money talks. So often has there been films that had their original, bolder finale changed, or had a tacked-on post-script added, in an attempt to make the film more saleable. Often these endings don’t feel right, or feel forced and the film is regarded as a compromise. It’s all the worse when said film ends up being a flop anyway. That’s what happened to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in the States, where the much-mocked ‘Love Conquers All’ edit that snipped off the devastating final minute of the film was still a commercial failure. Sometimes, the dark ending remains, and in the case of David Fincher’s Seven, ends up being much-admired, popular and culturally iconic conclusion. However, with Blow Out, which also stuck to its guns and delivered a tragic but utterly appropriate ending, audiences turned away. Maybe Seven‘s ending struck a chord because, for all its hopelessness and cruelty, it still depicted evil as something explicitly other, something we could do our utmost to distance ourselves from. Blow Out on the other hand probably felt too close to home, a different kind of nihilism that demanded we believe in nobody. For all it’s horrors, Seven at least ended on the statement that the world is worth fighting for. Blow Out‘s ending makes you feel like the best thing we should all do is not try to fight The Man – better to keep our mouths shut, let the world burn and go and lose ourselves in creature comforts.
Of course, lest we all get too depressed by this content, De Palma ensures that Blow Out oozes style right from the start – after the spectacular fake-movie opening, the title sequence starts with the needle of a volume control being sent off the charts by various noises – white noise, distortion, that sort of thing. In retrospect it’s very disturbing to hear Sally’s death scream playing out over Nancy Allen’s credit. Upon first viewing we just think it’s another shriek. Then there’s sound of a blow-out, and both words of the title come in from different directions towards the centre as we zoom in, with the ‘O’ of both words forming a single letter as we pass through it. Brilliant. The remainder of the credits deploys one of De Palma’s favourite tricks – split screen – as we follow Jack around his studio as he packs up for the night but also focus on the his television, where the news is giving us important, but casually-delivered information about the soon-to-be-murdered governor.
Jack Terry : It’s a good scream. It’s a good scream.
The sound recording sequence is a joy – here we just luxuriate in the art of movie-making. Jack is out by the river, underneath a bridge, recording the natural sounds that he will end up using in the movie – first we hear the sound, then we follow Jack’s mic as it picks up on it, and then we see the source – a frog, a couple having a quiet talk (unlike the chat between the couple in The Conversation, this one’s absolutely harmless), an owl….and something we don’t see the source of – a strange buzzing, winding sound. What the hell is that? We soon find out that it’s Burke pulling and releasing the garrote on his wristband. One of Blow Out‘s main pleasures is giving us little clues and hints that only become truly apparent on a second viewing. It’s not the sort of thing that makes a first watch baffling, just the odd lovely touch that makes further viewings even more satisfying.
This key sequence will be revisited many times throughout the movie – Jack will pore over his recording to try and work out what happened, and we the viewer are granted visual reminders of the action. This is taken a step further when Jack acquires a series of still images of the event, taken by Sally’s opportunist sidekick Manny (a scuzzy Dennis Franz). Jack cuts out the images, photographs them and creates a mini-movie to accompany the sound, and it’s essentially like watching a movie being made before our very eyes. De Palma is a classic visual storyteller, and these sequences showcase that love of craft and creation beautifully.
Throughout Blow Out, De Palma deploys his box of tricks superbly to the plot – in addition to split-screen we have his much-loved use of deep focus, as well as long-takes, 360 degree spin-arounds and back-projection. Like with Dressed to Kill, De Palma’s execution of cinematic technique is so kaleidoscopic it makes most other directors works feel awfully monochrome. The substance and the style of his films complement each other to such flawless degrees that his methods are precisely what makes the drama so dramatic. This isn’t just fancy dressing. This is cinematic style at its absolute peak. There’s also another wonderful score by Pino Donaggio. Okay, so his occasional lapses into what I can only describe as the imagined lost incidental music for some cancelled detective show may sound a little dated now, but the main orchestral and piano themes, especially the ones centred around Sally, are absolutely heartbreaking and truly beautiful.
For the first time since Obsession, De Palma focuses on a male protagonist, but unlike Cliff Robertson’s unfortunately blank lead in that earlier film, Jack Terry is a terrific, complex character, and John Travolta is tremendous in the role. His most iconic and unforgettable performances may have been his earlier turns in Saturday Night Fever and Grease, but his turn in Blow Out is just as vital, and sorely underrated. Appropriately, Travolta was suffering from insomnia during the making of the movie, which ended up really enhancing Jack’s disoriented, wired and paranoid state of mind. By the end, he’s utterly destroyed, and so are we. Some have found Nancy Allen annoying in Blow Out – indeed her voice is a bit ‘gee-whiz’, and Allen has said that she played the part as if Sally was a little rag doll, but she is the wonderful, innocent, pure core of the movie, its heart that is tragically ripped out by the film’s close. It’s a wonderful performance, and a complete turnaround from her utterly cruel, malevolent bully Chris in Carrie.
After the commercial failure of Blow Out, De Palma turned to the crime drama with 1983‘s epic Scarface – that proved to be a greater success, although the director’s Hitchcockian tendencies hadn’t been left behind. That film’s shower scene, where chainsaws take the place of kitchen knives, is a set-piece that would have worked well in De Palma’s more overt suspense thrillers. Blow Out on the other hand took its time to become truly recognised as one of the great American thrillers – it’s still a relatively overlooked work, as are many of De Palma’s films these days, but its reputation continues to grow. Its scream still haunts and echoes, decades on.