Movie: 'Blow Out'
Release Date: July 24, 1981
How It Got Made: That 'Blow Out' got made at all was pretty remarkable. Its 1960s and '70s-style political paranoia seemed out of place at the dawn of the Reagan '80s. Its director experienced budget problems, its leading man couldn't sleep, and when two reels were stolen during the editing process, it required expensive reshoots using a different cinematographer.
Still, the result was an unforgettable, despairing thriller, one whose final echoes continue to ring today. It may have marked the finest work in the careers of director Brian De Palma and stars John Travolta and Nancy Allen. And its fans included Quentin Tarantino, who has paid the film homage in several of his own works.
De Palma was coming off a big hit, 'Dressed to Kill,' when he wrote what would be one of his most ambitious films to date. It's the story of a movie sound engineer who happens to be taping ambient sounds at the scene when a car plunges into a lake and kills a political candidate. The sound man, who has saved a woman from the crash, believes his audio recording of the incident has captured evidence of a political assassination, putting his own life and the woman's life in danger. 'Blow Out' tipped its hat to some classic films - notably, Michelangelo Antonioni's similarly titled 'Blow-Up' (1966), in which a fashion photographer believes he's taken pictures of a murder, and Francis Ford Coppola's 'The Conversation' (1974), in which a surveillance expert becomes a target when he makes a potentially incriminating recording - as well as to recent political history: the Zapruder film's accidental capture of the JFK assassination, Ted Kennedy's car accident at Chappaquiddick that killed his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne, and the Watergate conspiracy's rash of tapings, buggings, and dirty tricks. The screenplay also explored De Palma's usual preoccupations - voyeurism, guilt, and ineffectual heroes.
De Palma secured an $18 million budget, his biggest since his 1978 special effects thriller 'The Fury.' For his leading man, he cast John Travolta, then at his early career peak after the triple-play of 'Saturday Night Fever,' 'Grease,' and 'Urban Cowboy.' Travolta, whom De Palma had given an early career break in 1976's 'Carrie,' suggested that fellow 'Carrie' actress Nancy Allen play the female lead, the prostitute Travolta rescues from the submerged car. De Palma, who had married Allen in 1979 and cast her in two films since, was reluctant, as he didn't want Hollywood to think his wife only got jobs out of nepotism, but when his backers suggested he cast Travolta's 'Grease' co-star, Olivia Newton-John, De Palma went with Allen instead. Rounding out the cast, as the heavies, were two De Palma regulars who had yet to gain wider fame: Dennis Franz and John Lithgow.
Travolta reportedly suffered from insomnia during the shoot. But that restlessness made his character's desperation and paranoia all the more vivid and realistic.
Filming took place in De Palma's hometown of Philadelphia. The director and his cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, staged the film's climactic sequence against a patriotic parade centered around the Liberty Bell. During post-production, however, two reels shot at the rally went missing, apparent victims of theft. De Palma had to restage and reshoot the parade, at a cost of $750,000. Zsigmond was unavailable to return, and De Palma had to hire cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs instead.
How It Was Received: 'Blow Out' received positive reviews from critics, especially Pauline Kael at the New Yorker, always De Palma's biggest champion. But audiences stayed away, and the picture recouped just $8 million of its budget. Maybe the movie wasn't escapist enough for summer audiences, or maybe they weren't used to seeing song-and-dance man Travolta in a thriller context, or maybe word spread about the film's thoroughly bleak (but apt) ending.
Long-Term Impact: 'Blow Out' may have been one of De Palma's most personal movies. Later films, including such hits as 'The Untouchables' and 'Mission: Impossible' (and such flops as 'Bonfire of the Vanities') were usually larger in scale and seemed less idiosyncratically his own.
The film did give boosts to Lithgow (who followed it up with his career-making performances in 'The World According to Garp' and 'Terms of Endearment') and Franz (who went on to become a TV cop-show stalwart on 'Hill Street Blues' and 'NYPD Blue'). Allen, who was divorced from De Palma in 1984, did go on to forge a career on her own, notably, as the female lead in the 'Robocop' trilogy. Many fans, however, believed she never surpassed her work in 'Blow Out,' where she mixed jadedness and innocence, and where her scream proved indelible and indispensable.
Travolta seemed to stumble through the 1980s in a series of ill-fitting roles, but there was one fan who never forgot his nuanced work in 'Blow Out.' That was Quentin Tarantino, who cited 'Blow Out' as one of his three favorite films, and who made a point of casting Travolta in what would be his comeback role in 1994's 'Pulp Fiction.' Tarantino also used part of the 'Blow Out' score in a scene in his 2007 movie 'Death Proof' (his half of 'Grindhouse').
How It Plays Today: The analog technology Travolta's character uses to recreate reality in 'Blow Out' seems antique now, but the film's awareness of how politics can manipulate image and reality without regard to the human consequences seems, in our digital age, to be frighteningly prescient. But De Palma isn't offering some relativist, postmodern shrug, as if to say that, because recorded sounds and images are unreliable, the truth is unknowable and always subject to interpretation. Rather, he's warning that the truth is screaming at us, but we've forgotten how to listen.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.