Brian De Palma’s Blow Out begins as one kind of horror film and ends as another.
The first four minutes are a fake-out, a schlocky horror movie the likes of which De Palma could never settle for making. He’s having his fun while setting the scene, full of panting and pounding, synthesizers and screams. Jack Terry (John Travolta) is responsible for these sound effects, and as the film really starts, we see him working away on a dark and stormy-sounding night in his studio, playing back recorded thunderclaps and such while catching up on the latest election news. De Palma, ever fond of his split-screens, demonstrates two people doing their jobs: he manipulates sounds, while the media manipulates the voices behind a political campaign, voices that are either growing louder in the face of unkind polls or those which are soon to be silenced altogether.
Jack goes to a local park to record some more ambient noise and finds himself front and center as the car of a presidential hopeful careens into a nearby river. He dives in, unable to rescue the driver but saving his passenger, Sally (Nancy Allen, De Palma’s wife at the time). Once they get to a hospital, the late candidate’s aide convinces Jack to downplay Sally’s presence. He reluctantly agrees, but eventually realizes that he recorded a distinct bang prior to the crash – maybe, just maybe, the tire had actually been shot out…
In a post-Watergate, post-Zapruder, post-Chappaquiddick, post-Conversation climate, of course Jack is right to suspect that a conspiracy is afoot. He never quite grasps the scale of things: the villainous “they” out to sabotage his evidence and claim their lives is merely one man, Burke (a perfectly menacing John Lithgow), going beyond his intended mission to tie up all loose ends. The police refuse to listen – Jack got one of their men killed when a wire job went south – and Sally is still coming to terms with her role as an accomplice to blackmail, fine at first with killing a career but not at all with killing a man.
When Sally, drugged up in the hospital, tells Jack that she doesn’t like to be observed, she’s the second woman to say as much (while in the park, before the accident, Jack peeps in on a couple’s conversation to the woman’s dismay). Did he really need to play the part of voyeur there? Don’t we as moviegoers thrive on two hours of dropping in on strangers’ lives? The film’s tragic end seems not only like karmic punishment for Jack’s prying ways, but also the consequences for Sally’s willing ignorance when it comes to the misdeeds taking place all around her. “I don’t watch the news,” she admits. “It’s too depressing.” She’s a ditzy avatar for the sand-set head of the common man; if you’re aloof like her, you’re in denial, and if you’re aware like Jack, you’re in danger.
It’s a rightfully cynical perspective for De Palma to take, and one ripe for all of his thriller machinations to play out. Characters are constantly framed by windows and backed by mirrors, either always watching or always being watched, and every suspicion takes place against the backdrop of patriotic celebration in Philadelphia, previously the center of colonial resistance when enough men took umbrage with their deceitful government. Alas, Jack is all alone, fighting against parades and fireworks and smiling faces to get to the truth, to explain a death and save a life. He ultimately gets that perfect scream he needed, at too great a cost, and as De Palma returns to that schlocky horror movie from the beginning, he perfectly contrasts movies that reveal the truth against those which avoid it – a blood-drenched yet stake-free slasher vs. the far more insidious horrors of all-American living.
The film’s red/white/blue-dominated palette is crisply maintained by Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer, especially in the hypnotic climactic sequence, while the sound design is certainly worthy of such a particularly attentive movie. Supplemental features include three substantial interviews – one with De Palma, one with Allen, and one with Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown, all excellent – as well as Murder à la Mod, a peculiar 1968 feature by the director that owes a great debt to Peeping Tom; a photo gallery from set photographer Louis Goldman (fitting, as De Palma took his inspiration from Antonioni’s Blow-Up, about a murder unwittingly captured within a photograph); an essay by critic Michael Sragow; Pauline Kael’s rave review from The New Yorker; a replica of the film’s crucial magazine pages; and the original theatrical trailer.