Sound is a key component for any non-silent movie. The tiniest creak of a door opening or a car starting up can add multitudes of personality to the world of any given individual motion picture. Of course, the best sound work can be best summed up by an old axiom (which I’m paraphrasing) referring to the equally important world of visual effects; your work is truly successful when nobody even notices it. In other words, the phrase refers to how the best visual effects seamlessly incorporate themselves into the story and don’t call attention to their own virtues. The same can be said for exceptional sound work, which can be easy for even a cinema devotee like myself to take for granted.
Brian De Palma’s 1981 feature film, Blow Out, gives a person who toils away in the world of sound work a chance in the spotlight, as this riveting thriller has John Travolta playing Jack Terry, a man who works on the sound for B-movies heavy on violence and nudity. While grabbing some sounds outdoors at night, Jack witnesses a car careening into a nearby lake and manages to rescue a lady, Sally (Nancy Allen), trapped in the automobile as well as record audio of the entire incident. While recovering at the hospital, Jack learns that the man driving the car (who was dead by the time Jack jumped into the lack to rescue Sally) was a high-profile potential presidential candidate. Jack soon listens to his to recording of the crash and has his suspicions aroused. Was that a gunshot blowing out one of the tires? Could Sally know more than she’s letting on? Could a man so high up in the world of politics maybe have some enemies who would want to take him out…and maybe tie up loose ends like Jack?
John Travolta’s career has been one of peaks and valleys, highs and lows, plenty of hits and…well, whatever the hell Old Dogs was. But Blow Out serves as a sterling reminder what kind of performance he can command in the right project. Travolta’s “looking-out-for-me-and-only-me” personality is brought out in his very first scene and it’s a testament to how well he plays that specific type of personality that he manages to be easy to invest in long before we get tragic backstory on why exactly he acts like this. I should also note that it’s awesome to see a young John Lithgow pull off playing a menacing antagonist like Burke (the primary foe of the movie) with such ease. He gets your skin crawling anytime he shows up on-screen and, like Travolta, he’s able to project his characters distinctive personality (for Lithgow he has to portray an unrelenting, unfeeling monster who adorns himself with patriotic paraphernalia) with tremendous success right from the get-go.
It’s not just the actors who get to shine in Blow Out though, no no no. Brian De Palma also gets a chance to flourish as both a writer and a director with this sensational feature. First off, in terms of its screenplay, Blow Out is certainly exquisite, especially in the way it slowly reveals to both Jack and the audience the real reasons behind the assassination “conspiracy”. It’s a clever concept to have Jack expect an intricately organized corporation to be behind the plot when in reality it’s a blackmail situation that’s gotten way out of hand and escalated to the point of murder thanks to a maniac named Burke. Not only does this conceit allow for a less convoluted narrative but it also allows Blow Out to subtly incorporate the terrifying idea of how much damage one unhinged man can accomplish. That’s a far more imposing, as well as horrifyingly true to life, idea that grounds the entire motion picture.
And then there’s the directing from Brian De Palma, which is similarly top-caliber stuff. There’s a superb level of variety in the camerawork that’s both exciting to watch in a visual sense and helpful to the dialogue and characters certain shots are depicting. Notice how the single take that swirls around Jack’s editing suite as he scours every corner for critical evidence correlated to the assassination instills a frantic sense in the viewer. Also, notice how split-screens, showing both footage of the nightly news and Jack burning the midnight oil while working on a sound assignment, are incorporated into the opening credits in a way that accomplishes a multitude of goals. Most noticeably, it allows for exposition setting up the political atmosphere of this universe. It also introduces a number of Jack’s tools or equipment to the viewer. Putting the two together shows how much Jack is absorbed in his own world, he’s too busy to notice crucial political developments occurring around him.
And that’s just the opening scene! From there, the multi-faceted visual scheme of Blow Out never lets up! And it all concludes with a gutsy downbeat ending that’s the kind of conclusion a movie like this one, which grapples with a more realistic kind of antagonist and issues, needs. Plus, this finale carries a build-up that is incredibly well-handled and unpredictable. Basically, Blow Out is one of those crime thrillers that modern day entries in that genre aspire to be. And why shouldn’t such films carry that ambition? This is some tremendously impressive work here, particularly in Brian De Palma’s directing that shows a noteworthy merging of style and thoughtfulness.