So it may come as a shock that De Palma's best film BLOW OUT (1981) which he both wrote and directed has little to do with Hitchcock and instead seems influenced by European Director Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film BLOW UP. Starring David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave, BLOW UP is about a British fashion photographer who may have accidentally photographed a murder. In De Palma's BLOW OUT, a movie soundman played by John Travolta stumbles onto a political assassination when he records what he thinks may be a gunshot that causes a presidential candidate to crash his automobile into a lake, killing the governor but not the pretty escort accompanying him.
BLOW OUT is not only inspired by Antonioni's BLOW UP (photography) but Francis Coppola's 1974 THE CONVERSATION (sound and wiretapping) and the paranoia political thrillers of the 70s like Alan J. Pakula's THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974). But De Palma also borrows from real life events including John F. Kennedy's assassination, the Zapruder home movie film that captured Kennedy's shocking death, and the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969 when presidential hopeful and younger brother of John F. Kennedy, Ted Kennedy drove his car off a one lane bridge and into a tidal channel killing a young female companion riding with him on Nantucket Island. The tragic accident may have cost the married Kennedy his shot at the presidency.
BLOW OUT is the culmination of a good run of films De Palma made in the late 70's and early 80s like CARRIE (1976), THE FURY (1978), and DRESSED TO KILL. BLOW OUT also has a group of actors that De Palma had worked with in the past who had become his own cinematic troupe including John Travolta (CARRIE), Nancy Allen (CARRIE and DRESSED TO KILL), John Lithgow (OBSESSION) and Dennis Franz (DRESSED TO KILL).
Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound editor for Independence Pictures, a Philadelphia film company specializing in cheap horror films like Blood Bath and Blood Bath 2 and his latest project Coed Frenzy. Unhappy with some of the sound effects (including a coed's scream that will have dark overtones later), Jack goes out to a local park that night to record wind and other background effects. While recording, Jack hears tires squeal, a tire blow out, and then sees a sedan crash into a creek within the park. Jack dives into the water. He's able to save the passenger in the car, a woman named Sally Bedina (Nancy Allen) but not the driver. At the hospital, Jack learns that the dead driver was presidential hopeful and current Governor George McRyan (John Hoffmeister). McRyan's Chief of Staff Lawrence Henry (John McMartin) asks Jack to forget there was a young woman in the car with the Governor out of respect for his family and wife. Jack locates a drugged up Sally and they both sneak out the back door of the hospital.
Jack stops Sally from leaving Philadelphia, convincing her to help him. Haunted by his past working with a police commission to catch crooked cops in which an informant he wired ended up murdered, Jack wants to absolve his sins and catch the people who murdered McRyan. Jack sends Sally to grab Manny's original photos of the accident. Sally manages to get the originals after knocking an amorous Manny out. Jack agrees to show his little film to Frank Donahue (Curt May), a TV news reporter. But Burke sabotages Jack's plan, blocking his phone calls and impersonating Donahue on the phone to have Sally bring the incriminating film and sound to him at Penn Station.
Sally tells the plan to Jack who suspects some thing's amiss. Jack wires Sally, confident this time he can catch the killer and keep Sally safe. But Burke whisks Sally away from the train station. Jack attempts to follow him but the Liberty Day parade blocks his route. Jack crashes his jeep trying to follow her. Fireworks explode in the night sky as Liberty Day concludes, Burke destroys the evidence and prepares to murder Sally. Jack regains consciousness, fleeing from an ambulance, following Sally's screams with his headphones as he races to save her from Burke. But will he find her in time?
Travolta's Jack Terry in BLOW OUT is director De Palma's alter ego. Jack tells Sally he like gadgets and won science fairs in high school. De Palma competed and won science fairs in high school. Travolta's character Jack similar to Keith Gordon's teenage character Peter Miller in DRESSED TO KILL uses technology like sound and film to catch a killer. In DRESSED TO KILL, Peter concocts a time lapse camera to find who murdered his mother. With BLOW OUT, Jack rotoscopes photographs of the accident (animators use rotoscoping) and syncs it up with his sound, creating a mini-film of the assassination.
De Palma and his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, THE DEER HUNTER, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND) introduce us to a sound editor's tools of the trade -- microphone, recorder, head phones, editing machine, and reel to reel tapes. By educating us, we are partners with Jack as he tries to solve this mystery. In one powerful sequence, De Palma and Zsigmond have the camera spin 360 degrees continuously in Jack's editing room as Jack runs around playing all his tapes, now erased by Burke, trying to find the one with the gun shot and blow out, the camera spinning like so many blank reel to reel tapes. It is dizzying and phenomenal.
BLOW OUT reveals De Palma's humorous dark side. The film opens with a killer spying on nubile college coeds, a film within our film. POV shots of the killer peeping on the girls in their rooms and shower, cheesy sound effects. It's Jack's latest project Coed Frenzy. Slasher films were the rage in the later 70s/early 80s. But then BLOW OUT becomes part-slasher film as Burke begins murdering women who look like Sally, trying to set up a fake Liberty Day strangler angle as he cleans up the governor's murder. The film's finale is De Palma's ultimate laugh as Jack unintentionally records the perfect scream, a macabre ending to this nightmarish thriller.
De Palma sets the film in Philadelphia known as the City of Brotherly Love. A fictional Liberty Day celebration looms for the city. Murals of Benjamin Franklin and other patriotic heroes are shown. But there's no brotherly love in De Palma's Philadelphia. A presidential candidate is murdered. A killer begins murdering innocent women to cover up his mistake. The killer Burke wears a red, white, and blue tie and a button with I LOVE LIBERTY on his lapel. Toward the end of the film, Jack crashes his jeep into a store front window with Liberty or Death etched on it, smashing mannequins dressed as revolutionary heroes including Patrick Henry with a noose around his neck, hanged as a spy by the British. The noose (or in Jack's case wire) is getting tighter and tighter as Jack runs out of time, rushing to save Sally from Burke.
BLOW OUT is probably Travolta's finest performance until over a decade later when Quentin Tarantino would rescue the SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER star from obscurity and cast him as hitman Vincent Vega in PULP FICTION (1994). In BLOW OUT, Travolta's Jack Terry is a haunted man, reduced to working on B horror films after his wire tapping work with the police led to an informant's death. Jack has a righteous side, a chip on his shoulder against corruption and deception. He smells conspiracy with McRyan's death. He wants to right his wrong and catch the bad guys. But in doing so, he jeopardizes the one good thing in his present life Sally. He saved her once but can he save her again?
Nancy Allen plays Sally as a free spirited ingénue (with a Brooklyn accent). She's not dumb but she's not the smartest woman either. Men try to take control of Sally's life and exploit her, first Manny Karp, later Jack Terry. But she's charming and we care about her. Nancy Allen was married to Brian De Palma for five years and they made four films together. Not to be confused with Karen Allen (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, STARMAN), Nancy Allen had a good career going in the mid 70s and 80s with roles in STRANGE INVADERS (1983) and ROBO COP (1987). But like many actresses as they reach their 40s, the roles began to drop off for Allen. The last thing I saw Nancy Allen in was a bizarre cameo in Steven Soderbergh's OUT OF SIGHT (1998). Like a few times in De Palma's films, Allen was half-naked, this time as the wife of a criminal played by Albert Brooks. But Allen's best work was her partnership with De Palma in CARRIE, DRESSED TO KILL, and BLOW OUT.
I'd like to think De Palma discovered John Lithgow who he first cast in OBSESSION, only Lithgow's third credit but his first feature film. Lithgow would also appear in BLOW OUT and RAISING CAIN (1992) for De Palma. With his tall frame and long face, Lithgow is creepy as the heavy Burke, the assassin/cleaner in BLOW OUT. He's one step ahead of Jack, destroying evidence like the blown tire or Jack's tapes. Burke's so confident he will clean up his insane mess that we are as surprised as Burke when Jack finds him and redirects the knife meant for Sally into Burke's chest. Lithgow's career has flourished, appearing in films as diverse as the comedy HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS (1987) to action films like CLIFFHANGER (1993) to his performance as Winston Churchill in the TV series THE CROWN (2016).
Yes BLOW OUT is a political conspiracy thriller with overtones to the Kennedy assassination and Chappaquiddick but De Palma can't completely separate from his infatuation with Hitchcock. BLOW OUT alludes to PSYCHO with the psychotic Burke killing women. Jack's frantic attempt to save the woman he loves and has endangered hearkens back to the finale of VERTIGO as Jimmy Stewart pursues his resurrected love Kim Novak. Fireworks n the French Rivera play a part in Hitchcock's TO CATCH A THIEF (1955), a metaphor for the sparks flying between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly as they make love. But for BLOW OUT, the Liberty Day fireworks have a much more somber, darker denotation. The pyrotechnics are Jack's soul exploding, his guilt and frustration erupting like so many colored rockets in his attempt to save Sally from Burke.
The opening credits for BLOW OUT seem like something that Hitchcock collaborator Saul Bass (VERTIGO, PSYCHO) might have created, alerting us that we're about to go on a thrilling ride with the title credits speeding like McRyan's out of control car. The music for BLOW OUT is not Hitchcock like. De Palma uses his favorite Italian composer Pino Donaggio who also did the music for De Palma's CARRIE, DRESSED TO KILL, and BODY DOUBLE (1984). Some of Donaggio's score in BLOW OUT sounds similar to another score he did for one of my favorite horror films, Joe Dante's THE HOWLING (also 1981).
With the success of small story driven films like BLOW OUT and DRESSED TO KILL, De Palma would move up to the world of big budget studio films , directing SCARFACE (1983), THE UNTOUCHBLES (1987), and the first MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE (1996). As with any repeated viewing of a film, I've started to notice bits of implausibility in BLOW OUT but it doesn't matter. BLOW OUT touches a nerve and reels us in with its bravura technical work by De Palma and crew and a story that could have been ripped from today's headlines.