The first time I saw Blow Out (1981) I was stunned by the work of actor John Travolta, who perhaps for the first time in his career was playing an adult. Having exploded onto the American film scene in Saturday Night Fever (1977), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor, Grease (1978) and Urban Cowboy (1980), there was no denying his talent playing young men struggling with the move into adulthood. However, could he play an adult already over that hump? Brian de Palma thought so and cast him as sound man Jack Terry in his brilliant noir thriller Blow Out, one of the very best films of 1981, the
eighties, and both of their careers. In fact I will go a step further and declare this the finest work of De Palma’s career and have told him so to his face.
He had broken through in the seventies, part of the new generation of filmmaker who was good friends with Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas and Spielberg, with Phantom of the Paradise (1974) a rock and roll take on The Phantom of the Opera story that had a terrific score written by Paul Williams who was in the film. The film found a cult following, while De Palma’s next work was a box office smash, the intense horror film based on Stephen King’s novel, Carrie (1976). Not only was the film a hit with audiences, Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie received Oscar nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. John Travolta made a strong impression on the director as the evil teenager who engineers a cruel prank on the girl leading to all hell breaking loose at the school prom. That same year De Palma also saw released his Hitchcockian thriller Obsession (1976) with strong performances and interesting camera work. It was his next film, Dressed to Kill (1980) that caused critics and audience to sit up and take notice. Another Hitchcockian thriller, made in the style of the master, though darker and much frightening, the picture owes much to Psycho (1960). With a roving camera, he captures much about the characters personal lives, and the film
was surprising sexual. With Blow Out, he made his masterpiece, though audiences did not respond initially to the film.
The picture explores what happens when B movie sound man Jack Terry is out collecting night sounds for a new horror film and tapes an auto accident that will claim the lie of a United States senator. Diving into the water to help, he save the life of Sally (Nancy Allen), portrayed by Nancy Allen, and is pulled into a web of deceit and intrigue. It quickly become very apparent that Sally should not have been in that car and that
her business with the very married senator was not something anyone wanted in the press. When working with the tapes, he discovers that the accident was nothing of the sort and that there are on the tape rifle shots and a tire blow out…this was murder. Knowing he has erred, the killer, played with dead eyed remoteness by John Lithgow decides to go on a killing spree, killing young women who look like Sally, the girl pulled out of the limo by Terry, so that when she is murdered by Lithgow it will look like a serial killer, nothing more. With the government aware that the senator was murdered, the investigation is ramped up, though Jack is still under the radar of the local police who believe he has something to do with the killing. It turns out he once worked for the police, and blames himself for the execution of an undercover cop, murdered by the mob when the battery on the wire he was wearing dripped acid into his flesh, giving him away. Haunted by his actions, Terry has allowed himself to work in B grade horror films, never having to do really fine work anymore, not able to do it. When he discovers that Sally is the next target he makes a move to prevent the killing, but what happens will impact him and the sounds he hears for the rest of his life.
Travolta was brilliant in Blow Out, giving Jack Terry a swarthy, lived in look that was perfect for the character and what he had gone through. This was a guy who was truly haunted by his past, and yet with Sally, will be even more haunted as he will hear her throat tearing screams forever. That final image as he is watching the film, using the screams heard while Sally was being butchered, he grabs his head as though he cannot get rid of its and whispers, ‘It’s a good scream.” Jack will kill the Lithgow character, but finds no solace in that, as Sally is dead and he heard every word. Her chatter (as she was wired) went from happy, we are a couple talk, to being stabbed repeatedly, one of the most horrific ways to die. Travolta pulls us into his world, gently using microphone like a conductor might conduct music, finding the sounds of the night, never realizing how dark his life was about to become. This was a major performance, once that Pauline Kael, the late great film critic of The New Yorker compared to early Brando, and I agree with her.
How did the Academy miss this performance and this film?? It bombed at the box office, no secret, yet was a soaring work of art. Luckily for De Palma, the film came out at a time when Home Video was at its peak, having just arrived to save films like this from never being seen. Blow Out became a cult classic on video and is now regarded as one of the directors’ very best works. In strong support of Travolta are Nancy Allen, superb as the dim Sally, and perhaps best of all John Lithgow as the vicious killer, who kills without conscience. De Palma’s always moving camera keeps us in this world, and the editing of the film builds maximum tension throughout. But it is the performances, namely Travolta that we connect with strongest. Travolta was never better than he is within this masterful work, and even considering Casualties of War (1989) I daresay this is De Palma’s greatest work.