by Pauline Kael
At forty, Brian De Palma has more than twenty years of moviemaking behind him, and he has been growing better and better. Each time a new film of his opens, everything he has done before seems to have been preparation for it. With Blow Out, starring John Travolta and Nancy Allen, which he wrote and directed, he has made his biggest leap yet. If you know De Palma’s movies, you have seen earlier sketches of many of the characters and scenes here, but they served more limited—often satirical—purposes. Blow Out isn’t a comedy or a film of the macabre; it involves the assassination of the most popular candidate for the presidency, so it might be called a political thriller, but it isn’t really a genre film. For the first time, De Palma goes inside his central character—Travolta as Jack, a sound effects specialist. And he stays inside. He has become so proficient in the techniques of suspense that he can use what he knows more expressively. You don’t see set pieces in Blow Out—it flows, and everything that happens seems to go right to your head. It’s hallucinatory, and it has a dreamlike clarity and inevitability, but you’ll never make the mistake of thinking that it’s only a dream. Compared with Blow Out, even the good pictures that have opened this year look dowdy. I think De Palma has sprung to the place that Altman achieved with films such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville and that Coppola reached with the two Godfather movies—that is, to the place where genre is transcended and what we’re moved by is an artist’s vision. And Travolta, who appeared to have lost his way after Saturday Night Fever,makes his own leap—right back to the top, where he belongs. Playing an adult (his first), and an intelligent one, he has a vibrating physical sensitivity like that of the very young Brando.
Jack, the sound effects man, who works for an exploitation moviemaker in Philadelphia, is outside the city one night recording the natural rustling sounds. He picks up the talk of a pair of lovers and the hooting of an owl, and then the quiet is broken by the noise of a car speeding across a bridge, a shot, a blowout, and the crash of the car to the water below. He jumps into the river and swims to the car; the driver—a man—is clearly dead, but a girl (Nancy Allen) trapped inside is crying for help. Jack dives down for a rock, smashes a window, pulls her out, and takes her to a hospital. By the time she has been treated and the body of the driver—the governor, who was planning to run for president—has been brought in, the hospital has filled with police and government officials. Jack’s account of the shot before the blowout is brushed aside, and he is given a high-pressure lecture by the dead man’s aide (John McMartin). He’s told to forget that the girl was in the car; it’s better to have the governor die alone—it protects the family from embarrassment. Jack instinctively objects to this cover-up but goes along with it. The girl, Sally, who is sedated and can barely stand, is determined to get away from the hospital; the aide smuggles both her and Jack out, and Jack takes her to a motel. Later, when he matches his tape to the pictures taken by Manny Karp (Dennis Franz), a photographer who also witnessed the crash, he has strong evidence that the governor’s death wasn’t an accident. The pictures, though, make it appear that the governor was alone in the car; there’s no trace of Sally.
Blow Out is a variation on Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), and the core idea probably comes from the compound joke in De Palma’s 1968 film Greetings: A young man tries to show his girlfriend enlarged photographs that he claims reveal figures on the “grassy knoll,” and he announces, “This will break the Kennedy case wide open.” Bored, she says, “I saw Blow-Up—I know how this comes out. It’s all blurry—you can’t tell a thing.” But there’s nothing blurry in this new film. It’s also a variation on Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), and it connects almost subliminally with recent political events—with Chappaquiddick and with Nelson Rockefeller’s death. And as the film proceeds, and the murderous zealot Burke (John Lithgow) appears, it also ties in with the “clandestine operations” and “dirty tricks” of the Nixon years. It’s a Watergate movie, and on paper it might seem to be just a political melodrama, but it has an intensity that makes it unlike any other political film. If you’re in a vehicle that’s skidding into a snowbank or a guardrail, your senses are awakened, and in the second before you hit, you’re acutely, almost languorously aware of everything going on around you—it’s the trancelike effect sometimes achieved on the screen by slow motion. De Palma keeps our senses heightened that way all through Blow Out; the entire movie has the rapt intensity that he got in the slow-motion sequences in The Fury (1978). Only now, De Palma can do it at normal speed.
This is where all that preparation comes in. There are rooms seen from above—an overhead shot of Jack surrounded by equipment, another of Manny Karp sprawled on his bed—that recall De Palma’s use of overhead shots in Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972). He goes even further with the split-screen techniques he used in Dressed to Kill (1980); now he even uses dissolves into the split screen—it’s like a twinkle in your thought processes. And the circling camera that he practiced with in Obsession (1976) is joined by circling sound, and Jack—who takes refuge in circuitry—is in the middle. De Palma has been learning how to make every move of the camera signify just what he wants it to, and now he has that knowledge at his fingertips. The pyrotechnics and the whirlybird camera are no longer saying “Look at me”; they give the film authority. When that hooting owl fills the side of the screen and his head spins around, you’re already in such a keyed-up, exalted state that he might be in the seat next to you. The cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, working with his own team of assistants, does night scenes that look like paintings on black velvet so lush you could walk into them, and surreally clear daylight vistas of the city—you see buildings a mile away as if they were in a crystal ball in your hand. The colors are deep, and not tropical, exactly, but fired up, torrid. Blow Out looks a lot like The Fury; it has that heat, but with greater depth and definition. It’s sleek and it glows orange, like the coils of a heater or molten glass—as if the light were coming from behind the screen or as if the screen itself were plugged in. And because the story centers on sounds, there is a great care for silence. It’s a movie made by perfectionists (the editor is De Palma’s longtime associate Paul Hirsch, and the production design is by Paul Sylbert), yet it isn’t at all fussy. De Palma’s good, loose writing gives him just what he needs (it doesn’t hobble him, like some of the writing in The Fury), and having Zsigmond at his side must have helped free him to get right in there with the characters.
De Palma has been accused of being a puppeteer and doing the actors’ work for them. (Sometimes he may have had to.) But that certainly isn’t the case here. Travolta and Nancy Allen are radiant performers, and he lets their radiance have its full effect; he lets them do the work of acting too. Travolta played opposite Nancy Allen in De Palma’s Carrie (1976), and they seemed right as a team; when they act together, they give out the same amount of energy—they’re equally vivid. In Blow Out, as soon as Jack and Sally speak to each other, you feel a bond between them, even though he’s bright and soft-spoken and she looks like a dumb-bunny piece of fluff. In the early scenes, in the hospital and the motel, when the blonde, curly-headed Sally entreats Jack to help her, she’s a stoned doll with a hoarse, sleepy-little-girl voice, like Bette Midler in The Rose—part helpless, part enjoying playing helpless. When Sally is fully conscious, we can see that she uses the cuddly-blonde act for the people she deals with, and we can sense the thinking behind it. But then her eyes cloud over with misery when she knows she has done wrong. Nancy Allen takes what used to be a good-bad-girl stereotype and gives it a flirty iridescence that makes Jack smile the same way we in the audience are smiling. She balances depth and shallowness, caution and heedlessness, so that Sally is always teetering—conning or being conned, and sometimes both. Nancy Allen gives the film its soul; Travolta gives it gravity and weight and passion.
Jack is a man whose talents backfire. He thinks he can do more with technology than he can; he doesn’t allow for the human weirdnesses that snarl things up. A few years earlier, he worked for the police department, but that ended after a horrible accident. He had wired an undercover police officer who was trying to break a crime ring, but the officer sweated, the battery burned him, and, when he tried to rip it off, the gangster he hoped to trap hanged him by the wire. Yet the only way Jack thinks that he can get the information about the governor’s death to the public involves wiring Sally. (You can almost hear him saying “Please, God, let it work this time.”) Sally, who accepts corruption without a second thought, is charmed by Jack because he gives it a second thought. (She probably doesn’t guess how much thought he does give it.) And he’s drawn to Sally because she lives so easily in the corrupt world. He’s encased in technology, and he thinks his machines can expose a murder. He thinks he can use them to get to the heart of the matter, but he uses them as a shield. And not only is his paranoia justified but things are much worse than he imagines—his paranoia is inadequate.
Travolta—twenty-seven now—finally has a role that allows him to discard his teenage strutting and his slobby accents. Now it seems clear that he was so slack-jawed and weak in last year’s Urban Cowboy because he couldn’t draw upon his own emotional experience—the ignorant-kid role was conceived so callowly that it emasculated him as an actor. As Jack, he seems taller and lankier. He has a moment in the flashback about his police work when he sees the officer hanging by the wire. He cries out, takes a few steps away, and then turns and looks again. He barely does anything—yet it’s the kind of screen acting that made generations of filmgoers revere Brando in On the Waterfront: it’s the willingness to go emotionally naked and the control to do it in character. (And, along with that, the understanding of desolation.) Travolta’s body is always in character in this movie; when Jack is alone and intent on what he’s doing, we feel his commitment to the orderly world of neatly labeled tapes—his hands are precise and graceful. Recording the wind in the trees just before the crash of the governor’s car, Jack points his long, thin mike as if he were a conductor with a baton calling forth the sounds of the night; when he first listens to the tape, he waves a pencil in the direction from which each sound came. You can believe that Jack is dedicated to his craft because Travolta is a listener. His face lights up when he hears Sally’s little-girl cooing; his face closes when he hears the complaints of his boss, Sam (Peter Boyden), who makes sleazo “blood” films—he rejects the sound.
At the end, Jack’s feelings of grief and loss suggest that he has learned the limits of technology; it’s like coming out of the cocoon of adolescence. Blow Out is the first movie in which De Palma has stripped away the cackle and the glee; this time he’s not inviting you to laugh along with him. He’s playing it straight and asking you—trusting you—to respond. In The Fury, he tried to draw you into the characters’ emotions by a fantasy framework; in Blow Out, he locates the fantasy material inside the characters’ heads. There was true vitality in the hyperbolic, teasing perversity of his previous movies, but this one is emotionally richer and more rounded. And his rhythms are more hypnotic than ever. It’s easy to imagine De Palma standing very still and wielding a baton, because the images and sounds are orchestrated.
Seeing this film is like experiencing the body of De Palma’s work and seeing it in a new way. Genre techniques are circuitry; in going beyond genre, De Palma is taking some terrifying first steps. He is investing his work with a different kind of meaning. His relation to the terror in Carrie or Dressed to Kill could be gleeful because it was pop and he could ride it out; now he’s in it. When we see Jack surrounded by all the machinery that he tries to control things with, De Palma seems to be giving it a last, long, wistful look. It’s as if he finally understood what technique is for. This is the first film he has made about the things that really matter to him. Blow Out begins with a joke; by the end, the joke has been turned inside out. In a way, the movie is about accomplishing the one task set for the sound effects man at the start: he has found a better scream. It’s a great movie.
The New Yorker, July 27, 1981