Blow-up, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, was one of the movies that was released in the mid to late 1960s that proved that filmmakers couldn’t be limited to the restrictions of the very conservative and very critical MPAA Production Code, aka the Hays Code. A movie like this would’ve never been able to have been made a few years earlier.
Let me, rephrase that. A movie like this would’ve never been able to be released in America and other countries a few years earlier.
There is no rating on this movie but there is nudity and sexual content, two of the big no-nos of the Hays Code. Kissing was once restricted down to the nanosecond of footage, in which filmmakers would have couples kiss briefly over and over. It was movies like Blow-up and others that showed we really needed a better system. Some rumors have persisted that Antonioni actually allowed a few frames of female pubic hair, which is a fitting rumor since this is a movie about a photographer thinking he’s seeing something that may or may not be there.
David Hemmings plays Thomas, a somewhat cocky and arrogant but a bit flamboyant photographer who lives and works in London. He’s leaving a doss house or flophouse at the beginning but gets in a convertible Rolls-Royce with its own car radio as he goes back to his studio/home to take pictures of models, one of those is the real-life Veruschka.
Later he walks out through the town and comes upon a couple in Maryon Park and begins to take their picture. The woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) becomes angry and upset that she’s taking their picture and demands the film. Thomas refuses and said he will give her the photos after he’s developed them. But he does tell her that she has the look to be a model. Jane tracks him back to his home where they talk and flirt. She takes off her blouse but nothing really sexual happens until she comes to her senses and immediately wants to leave. He hands her a wrong roll of film and she gives him a wrong phone number.
He develops the pictures but notices something odd in the hard copies. Jane is looking in a direction toward the bushes. But what is there? Since the picture was taken farther away without him zooming in, he can’t make it out. So, he blows up the photo only to discover there may be a person lurking in the bushes with a pistol in his hands.
But blow up photo is so unclear and grainy, he’s not really sure. Was the man Jane was with murdered? He didn’t hear a gun shot, but Jane is very adamant about getting the photos, even at the one point of trying to steal his camera as Thomas leaves the room to get some drinks.
He returns to the park and sees a body lying on the ground, but didn’t bring his camera, so he goes back to his studio where it’s been ransacked and all the prints and negatives are gone except for the grainy blow-up. Thomas goes driving around town and sees Jane go into a concert where The Yardbirds are playing but can’t find her especially after a riot ensues when John Beck breaks his guitar upset over an amplifier malfunctioning.
At a party where drugs are being used, Thomas’ agent, Ron (Peter Bowles), is stoned but Thomas wants him to come see the body. As day breaks, he returns to the park but can’t find the body and later observes a group of mimes who were riding around London earlier in the movie gather around a tennis court where a male mime and a female mime act like they’re playing tennis.
When the male mime “hits” the ball over the fence, the female mime gestures to Thomas if he can get it for her. He walks over and pretends to pick up the non-existing ball and throws it back over the fence. After this, we hear the sounds of a real ball being played in a match of tennis.
Antonioni’s movie is really what we see and hear and what we think we do. Was Jane at the concert? Who knows? Maybe Thomas thought he saw someone far away who looked like her, but up close he couldn’t find her. How many times have you seen someone from far away who you thought was someone you knew, but as you get closer, you realize they’re someone else.
As a photojournalist myself, I have had people telling me that they’ve seen things in pictures that aren’t there. I was covering a sentencing hearing in Americus, Ga. back in 2002 when a man convicted of stabbing his girlfriend was being led into the courtroom by a deputy. His hands were free and he gave a semi-wave to his family and friends seated behind me. His other hand was resting at his side, but every white person who looked at the photo said he was “throwing gang signs.”
No. He wasn’t throwing gang signs. He was waiving to people in the audience of the courtroom. It didn’t matter. The police said he was throwing gang signs. My publisher said he was throwing gang signs. People see what they want to see and so does Thomas.
Was there a shooter lurking in the bushes? Why was Jane so anxious to get the film? If a dead body is in a park for hours, how come no one else saw it and notified authorities? Maybe someone did notify the authorities and the body has been removed.
It could just be that Jane was involved in an affair and didn’t want any pictures of herself with the man. The grainy image in the blow-up is just that, a grainy image. Is Thomas losing his mind or did he just get enough sleep after being up taking pictures all night? In the end, Thomas may not be in touch with reality.
Antonioni got Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay but didn’t win. He had originally wanted to cast Sean Connery, but they got into an argument, because Connery wouldn’t show him the whole script. There’s a lot of scenes that look more like improvisation and ad-libbing. I don’t think I would have been able to see Connery in this role. Hemmings was the right type of actor to play this role.
Hemmings later founded the Hemdale Film Corporation. He was only in his mid-20s when this was made. Thomas needs to be a young cocky person. Connery would’ve been in his mid-30s, too mature for a role.
The movie would go one to inspire other movies such as The Conversation directed by Francis Ford Coppola and Blow Out by Brian DePalma. But it’s biggest inspiration may have been on other filmmakers who wanted to do movies with popular bands playing and people engaging in sexual activities and even drug activity. It didn’t have to be about a photographer. Could it be about two guys on motorcycles crossing America? Or how about New York street hustler befriending a young gullible guy who thinks he can make it as a male prostitute?
Blow-up didn’t get approval under the Hays Code and was condemned by the National Legion of Decency. It was released through Premier Productions in the later part of 1966 and went on to make $20 million worldwide, with about $6 million in North America. An avant-garde art movie making that much money at that time meant that it was time to change things up. I’m sure most people went just because of the controversy alone and to see nudity and sexual content which was provocative 45 years ago now seems tame by many standards.
The poster art for the movie of Hemmings straddling a woman while taking a photograph of her was later used for the inspiration for the documentary A Decade Under the Influence in which it’s a movie camera instead of a still photo camera. You can even see some influence on the Austin Powers movies as the titular character is a photographer behaving to models in similar fashion that Thomas does.
Antonioni and Hemmings have since passed away. And the Hemdale Film Corporation is no more. Antonioni received an honorary Oscar for his work in 1994 even though there was criticism that they showed the explosions of Zabriskie Point to conclude the montage of his work. He is also the only film director to have won the Palme d’Or, the Golden Bear, the Golden Lion and the Golden Leopard for his works.