De Palma is one of those filmmakers that I don’t particularly like, but I can’t stop watching his films. I love to gripe about him, and yet I keep coming back for more. I think that’s part me wanting to know what the hell everyone else sees in his films and part the fact that they are pretty intriguing on some level. Mostly stylistically. I won’t argue that DePalma is a downright fantastic visual filmmaker, but it’s pretty rare that the story he’s telling lives up to the visuals. In the case of Blow Out, I find parts of the story just plain sloppy and that makes it hard to take the suspense seriously through the finish.
I first saw Blow Out years ago on DVD and remember being none too impressed with the very blatant mashup of Antonioni’s Blowup and Coppola’s The Conversation, albeit with a bit of a giallo twist. But when I saw the Denver Film Center was screening a 35mm print for a DePalma series I jumped at the chance to see in on the big screen. My mind had been changed before by the theatrical experience, maybe here was my chance to see what’s so great about DePalma. While I may not be a believer just yet, I did come out with a bit more of an appreciation for what may very well be De Palma’s best film. It’s not my favorite mind you, that will always be The Untouchables, but from a technical perspective I think Blow Out is the epitome of De Palma the auteur.
John Travolta, unknowingly about to take a 13 year dip in his career, plays a sound man for a low-budget movie studio that ends up recording in the wrong place at the wrong time. After a car plunges into a lake, Jack (Travolta) dives in and rescues the beautiful Sally, played by De Palma’s wife at the time Nancy Allen, but is unable to save the driver of the car..which turns out to be the Governor and presidential hopeful. Knowing that he recorded a gunshot, Jack becomes obsessive in trying to prove that it’s an assassination attempt. Magically film footage turns up as well and Jack has all the evidence he needs to make his case. Enter the half-assed conspiracy plot and a rogue agent that likes killing prostitutes played by John Lithgow. Jack tries to do the right thing and save their lives, but instead he pretty much just sends Sally to her death.
Sloppy plot contrivances aside, the film does a good job of creating suspense for the first 2/3. De Palma masterfully uses sound and his signature split-screen deep focus shots to tighten the action. This is where you really benefit from seeing it on the big screen, where you truly are surrounded by the atmosphere. De Palma constantly manipulates sound, space, and POV to turn the viewer into the voyeur — but only showing you just enough to keep you hooked. The only problem is by the third act you start to not care anymore. But then again function has never been as important as form to Mr. DePalma. The climax looks slick and is a little fucked up, and that’s enough to make it memorable.
This is one of those instances where if you have an interest in the film industry, you definitely get more out of this experience. I’m completely fascinated not just by the sound design and cinematography of the film itself, but also by the process Jack goes through in the film to piece together his own film of the accident, thus piecing together the very film we’re watching. How meta. As I mentioned, the technique here is quite possibly De Palma’s best, it’s just a shame the story never rises above a low-budget thriller.