Blow Out

Blow Out ★★★★½

Ranked: Brian De Palma
Top 100 Films

A conspiracy thriller about a sound effects man that records the assassination of a Presidential candidate, Blow Out is immediately my favorite of Brian De Palma works. Though it may be surpassed by something I have yet to see, the film feels as though it is the most fully formed and most assured film from the director and, as such, it stands above the rest of his stellar filmography. Sporting his typical visual style of voyeurism, tracking shots, and split-screens, Blow Out once more adds to the De Palma canon on those fronts while adding in further references to the works of Alfred Hitchcock. Though hardly different than many of his other works, Blow Out finds De Palma at his most suspenseful and menacing with scene after scene dripping with atmospheric tension and mystery. At no point does the ending become clear and De Palma seems intent on keeping the audience guessing with the film's unpredictability.

Opening with a sequence from a film that Jack Terry (Travolta) is working on, the opening feels like an act of self-reflexivity. A B-horror movie about a man stalking and killing college girls (apparently), the segment is shot entirely in point of view with an iris and feels akin to the opening of De Palma's 1976 film Carrie and mixes in some elements of Rear Window and Psycho or De Palma's later film Body Double. Depicting the killer stalking the girls by looking through the window of their dorm room, the sequence feels in line with De Palma's work and the violence perpetrated against women in his films. As the killer peeps in on his victims, he eventually makes his way inside and into the shower room. There, he finds his perky breasted victim that the fake director claims he chose because "of her tits". As she is killed in the shower, there is a clear reference to Psycho, but seems to be a little tongue-in-cheek on De Palma's part given the opening of Carrie and the gratuitous shots of women's breasts in a high school shower in that opening and throughout the film as a whole. In many ways, it feels like this opening is a bit of an inside joke and it was much appreciated.

De Palma continues the action in bathrooms later on in the film, somewhat taking another page out of Hitchcock's book with bathroom violence and out of Kubrick's, who also has an affinity for bathroom scenes. The scene in which Burke (John Lithgow), the man tasked with cleaning up the cover-up, kills a prostitute in the train station, the scene is incredibly intense. Creeping up behind his victim slowly and following her similar to James Stewart following his assignment in Vertigo, De Palma then has some fun in the bathroom with Lithgow using the adjoining stall to climb above his victim and hang her with his own hands. The scene is brutal, intense, and a highlight of the film with its anticipation, suspense, and voyeurism.

Of course, the voyeurism here continues throughout the film, but in a little different fashion. Inspired by the voyeurism of Hitchcock, De Palma has employed it in a variety of his films such as Sisters, Dressed to Kill, and throughout his succeeding filmography, namely in Body Double or Femme Fatale. Here, he gives his peeper a sound recorder, which leads to Jack being accused of being a "peeping tom" by a woman he was eavesdropping on while recording sounds. This really does feel like an innovation on this constant theme in his work and those of his influences by changing the way in which we spy on the unsuspecting. Rather than watching them, we hear them and are left to put the pieces together on our own. Of course, this leads perfectly into the conspiracy as the sound is what tells the story and informs more so than the visuals that are recorded of the "accident" suffered by the politician.

As with many of his films, such as Sisters, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Snake Eyes, Femme Fatale, and Passion, De Palma loves his split-screen. Blow Out is no exception with multiple sequences utilizing it to great effect. The scene in which the accident happens really stands out as the screen is split between Jack and what he is recording, even if it is just animals such as toads or owls. This really sets the scene and the atmosphere perfectly for what is set to occur. The film also really foreshadows at the beginning that the sound will factor into the fate of Governor McRyan when De Palma again uses split-screen as Jack tests the sounds he has recorded before and, on the other side, we have a news broadcast about McRyan's popularity and the expectations that he will run for President. The scene, of course, also serves to let the audience know that Jack's tapes do work and contain sound, which plays into the film later on. However, one of the best shots in the film comes with a girl walking around outside and Burke closing in on her. Though not strictly a split-screen, rather just some creative framing with the foreground and background, the left side of the screen shows Burke grab an ice pick as the girl walks out of a building. Given the impact the ice pick later has on her life, this is a clever shot utilized here by De Palma and adds to the suspense and menacing nature of the film, in which De Palma sprinkles clues and hints along the way for the audience to pick up on that eventually play into the finale.

One of the more interesting segments in the film comes when Jack is in his office and learns his tapes have been erased. Using a spinning camera that whips around the room repeatedly, De Palma shows Jack's slow realization his tapes, including the incriminating one, are gone. The camera shows passage of time with Jack appearing in a variety of places within the room. Though a bit nauseating to actually sit through, it does a great job to set the atmosphere of the moment. The spinning creates an almost panicked feeling for the audience where we just want to run away and shut off the film before we vomit on ourselves. This, likely, simulates the internal feelings of Jack upon landing on his discovery. The sinking feeling in his stomach followed by the panic that he is being followed and could be in danger of being killed for the sounds he has recorded. The scene is quite a bit longer than I would have liked because, again, the spinning camera is hard to watch, but it is incredibly effective and impactful, separating itself from many other scenes in the film.

De Palma, as mentioned before, has a lot of fun with the framing in the film as well. The highlight really coming in the train station. As mentioned, he introduces some voyeurism into the film with Burke following his prostitute victim in the station, echoing films such as Vertigo. Putting Jack and Sally (Nancy Allen) in a supposed meeting with a newspaper reporter who is actually Burke in the train station, De Palma further has some fun with stalking and framing. The latter coming when Jack and Sally first arrive. As Sally runs into the building wearing a wire, Jack steps out of the car and the camera focuses in on the windows where a small Burke can be seen. In between two bars, De Palma later extrapolates on this shot when he shows Burke walking to meet Sally. The inside of the train station has a frame that Burke is walking behind that appears similar to a jail cell. Part foreshadowing and part red herring, it shows that De Palma, while having a flair for dramatic camera shots, also has a flair for the dramatic with his blocking and production design. The train station reveals some further enjoyment on the part of the director when Burke is tracking Sally and ushering her away, while Jack tries to find where they are. Part tracking shot and part voyeurism, the scene is dripping with tension and suspense as the audience is left guessing whether or not Jack will find her. Yet, as with the ending of the film, it is greatly anticlimactic and this is what seals the film as unpredictable. Though some beats of the story may seem obvious, the end result and resolution of those moments seem cut off or departing from the norm. The very end of the film with Jack finishing work on the sound in the horror film further cements this as the audience is largely left without resolution or pay-off.

One of, if not the, best films of De Palma's lengthy career, Blow Out is an intense, thrilling, and thoroughly menacing work. With terrific framing, blocking, and camera movements throughout, Blow Out shows that master director referencing himself, the work of Michelangelo Antonioni in Blow-Up (which I still need to see), and of course Alfred Hitchcock. Yet, this does not mean the film is not inventive as he plays with the concept of voyeurism once more, but most often via sound, rather than sight. Through this, it really adds to the mystery of the entire picture and leaves the audience on pins and needles throughout.

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