1981 // USA // Brian De Palma // February 8, 2011 // DVD - MGM (2001)
[Blow Out was screened on February 8, 2011 as a part of "How (Not) to Mind Your Own Business," the Webster University Film Series' three-feature retrospective on the films of Brian De Palma.]
Whether by dint of astute scheduling or pleasing happenstance, the Webster Film Series featured Brian De Palma's bleak, crackling thriller Blow Out one week after it screened Blow-Up, which made for a gratifying and revealing juxtaposition. De Palma's film is unmistakably functioning in the shadow of Antonioni's masterwork, as evidenced not only by its allusive title, but also by its prominent treatment of audio-visual craft, presented with a dazzling balance of admiration and cynicism. There's also, of course, the despairing thematic fixation on veracity in an era of constructed and reconstructed (and re-reconstructed) realities. Yet Blow Out is unmistakably a De Palma film, neither as unruly nor as artistically ambitious as Antonioni's, but dripping with the former director's garish signatures, from the dizzying mood of mortal peril to the goofy, maudlin music cues. Admittedly, even as a thriller, Blow Out doesn't always cohere properly: Far too many scenes rely on characters behaving with breathtaking callowness, particularly Nancy Allen's squeeze-toy / femme fatale, Sally. Yet despite my own ambivalent stance towards De Palma's works, I have to concede that the film stands out as one of his finest, a bold and fascinating amalgamation of diverse influences that still plays in the auteur's distinctive key. Sure, Blow Out exploits the noir tropes that recurrently occupy De Palma, and it brims with the expected Hitchcock nods. Most crucially, however, it represents a synthesis of the director's style with the indelible "paranoia films" of the 1970s (The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, All the President's Men). And while I've never had much use for John Travolta, here the actor is as enthralling (and gorgeous) as he's ever been, portraying a character that is by turns shrewd, searing, and sweetly dim. Watching his sound engineer Jack stumble along in his attempts to charm Allen's naïve and anxious con-lady is the cherry on top of a striking performance.