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Blow Out (Blu-ray Review)

9 May, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R.’
Stars John Travolta, Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz, John Lithgow.

Though I’ve never been too wild in the past about a thriller that remains revered by many (or at least a lot more than some), Criterion gives Brian De Palma’s Hitchcock-ian homage to Antonioni’s Blow-Up by far the fairest shake it’s gotten in my previous experience with it. Possibly due to a by-product of the film’s original mis-marketing (to which its now blonde co-lead Nancy Allen alludes in a typically excellent Criterion bonus interview), my initial viewing of Blow Out took place in a theater with pitiful sound. And this in a major city’s premiere engagement the same summer as Prince of the City and Body Heat (two movies that I still like much, much more).

Compounding that felony, of course, is the fact that this is a movie that’s about sound: John Travolta plays a soundman regularly working on movies so trashy that De Palma himself could have made them. And though sound is as artistically crucial in Blow Out’s case as it is to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (which, just to keep things in scale, I also much prefer), here was some booker throwing De Palma’s hard work away in the kind of shoebox of a triple-plex where you can always hear what’s playing in the adjoining auditorium. (Later, the joint was converted into a pool hall.)

But the new Blu-ray’s soundtrack sounds as if it has been pumping some iron, and visually, this is just one more example of how Criterion can make a movie of 30 years’ vintage look great when I see Blu-rays of comedies that were in theaters four months ago looking muddy. So, yeah: Thanks to Criterion, I now do appreciate Blow Out’s technical virtuosity more than I ever have — though hardly enough to curtsy to one of Pauline Kael’s most famously unbridled reviews (the kind that made so many revere Andrew Sarris). Reprinted in the Criterion booklet along with critic Michael Sragow’s less breathy brief, it terms the film “great” and puts De Palma’s direction on a level with Robert Altman’s for McCabe and Mrs. Miller. As a poker-faced Jack Webb often replied to felons whose alibis were shaky: “Uh, huh.”

Travolta’s character is somewhere on the outskirts of Philly recording nocturnal atmosphere when a skidding car goes into the drink, and he has to rescue (barely) a woman passenger played by Allen. With ears attuned to audio nuances, he is certain — and the tapes he has back him up — that there was a gunshot just before the tire screeching began. That the dead driver was a presidential hopeful making great in-roads on the incumbent doesn’t exactly calm his nerves. It turns out that while no one was supposed to get killed, Allen was set up by a political conspiracy that involves, among others, a private detective (Dennis Franz) and a “cowboy” type of assassin (John Lithgow) who let things get out of hand.

By the time Blow Out came out, we were past the Carter Administration and into the early days of Reagan’s. Yet beyond De Palma’s longtime fascination with the JFK assassination, a Watergate aura looms here: Other than the fact that he gets off on murdering women, Lithgow is a the very much the kind of crackpot that Nixon “Plumber” G. Gordon Liddy was — while the unidentified older superior appalled by what Lithgow has perpetrated looks something like John Mitchell, the Nixon attorney general who (like so many) went down with Liddy’s ship. There’s also this movie’s equivalent of the Nixon “18-minute gap”: Someone comes in and erases Travolta’s evidence tape.

The two leads give it their all, and their critical praise is understandable — though I do think their characters are so unrefined and borderline crude around the edges that I suspect this had at least a little to do with why the film didn’t catch on with a wide public. Of course, compared to Franz, Travolta and Allen come off like Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall. De Palma really loads the deck on Franz’s character: food stains on a T-shirt covering his dumpy frame; drinks his booze out of the bottle; not only doesn’t wash after the bathroom but doesn’t flush; last seen drunkenly trying to rape Allen (or close).

Travolta’s breakthrough had been De Palma’s Carrie, which also memorably featured Allen. According to the latter’s interview here, Travolta wasn’t initially envisioned for Blow Out but asked to do it after reading the script — whereupon it became a somewhat different movie than conceived. Following his hall-of-fame Moment by Moment career debacle in 1979 directly atop the monster box office performance of Saturday Night Fever and Grease, Travolta was back on top after 1980’s Urban Cowboy. So with him headlining the cast, distributor Filmways positioned it (says Allen) as a summer release, even though its downbeat ending probably telegraphed autumn placement. This mess-up (plus mixed reviews) relegated the picture to cult status, whereupon Travolta went into one of the worst freefalls any major actor ever suffered: Staying Alive, Two of a Kind, Perfect, The Experts, a pair of baby-themed Look Who’s Talking diaper fillers and … incredibly, there were even more, but why pile on in a lopsided game?

There’s a lot of visual pizzaz here (Vilmos Zsigmond photographed) and also some trademark De Palma silliness; this is another movie where someone perpetrates operatic reckless driving that even back then would have made the lead story on every network’s national news — and yet seemingly has no legal consequences. But enough. I don’t have to be crazy about the picture to recommend this release to people who do, a list that includes the filmmaker who finally rescued Travolta’s career for a short while. In fact, I heard Quentin Tarantino tell Charlie Rose once that Blow Out is in his personal top three, along with Rio Bravo and Taxi Driver.

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