John Travolta going into the 1980s was flying high following Saturday Night Fever and Grease. Even Urban Cowboy helped revived the cowboy country-western look despite the absurdity of people riding a mechanical bull. So, what could go wrong?
Well, Blow Out opened during the summer of 1981 and despite good reviews (some of the best of both Travolta’s and director Brian DePalma’s career), it bombed at the box office and its ending has angered viewers for more than four decades. Inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, the political thriller was reminiscent of 1970s thrillers such as The Conversation and The Parallex View. DePalma was heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock and he would often make movies in which all the evidence pointed to the innocent man or someone had the evidence to show everyone something was wrong but no one would believe them.
Travolta plays Jack Terry, a low-level sound effects person for a low-budget Philadelphia film company making exploitation horror movies. As the movie opens, we’re seeing a Halloween/Black Christmas P.O.V. of a killer stalking some co-eds at a dormitory when he appears in front of a young woman in the shower who lets out a horrible shriek and we switch to Terry laughing at how bad it is. The producer tells him to find a better screamer and some better outside nature sounds.
So, later that night, Jack takes his recording equipment out to a local creek to record sounds of wind and other effects. That is until he hears a car approaching and what he thinks is a tire blow out. But it sounded different than a regular blow out. However, he doesn’t have time to listen back as the car with the tire careens off the road into the water. Jack quickly jumps in to save the people not noticing a mysterious man, Manny Karp (Dennis Franz), underneath a walk bridge who runs off.
Jack is able to save the young woman in the car, Sally Bedina (Nancy Allen), but the driver dies. At the hospital, he finds out the driver was the Pennsylvania Gov. George McRyan. One of McRyan’s associates, Lawrence Henry (John McMartin), tells Jack to try to smuggle Sally out of the hospital as the press has ascended on the hospital. Jack takes Sally, who seems like she’s not too bright, to a nearby motel for her to rest. But while listening to his recording as she sleeps, it sounds more like a gunshot.
With news of McRyan’s death, Karp comes out saying he took pictures of the accident and sells them to the tabloids. Then, a mysterious fixer, Burke (John Lithgow) pops up and is able to switch out the tire as it was he who shot out the tire. Unbeknownst to Jack, Manny and Sally were working together as she is a part-time prostitute. They were hired by a rival candidate of McRyan’s, but it was supposed to be just a simple road accident. McRyan would be photographed by Karp with Sally and it would ruin his re-election chances.
Now, Burke has devised a plan to murder look-alikes of Sally to make it look like the work of a serial killer when Jack convinces Sally not to leave town as he suspects it was a gunshot. Jack tells Sally that before he went to work on movies, he was working for a commission to investigate crooked law enforcement in the Philadelphia area. One night he had wired an undercover police officer who despite the cold winter weather sweated too much and it caused the batteries to arc and be tipped off. Then he was murdered.
Jack already has bad blood with the police department who feel he worked to put other law enforcement away. However, they don’t realzie the murder of the cop greatly affected him. With a local reporter Frank Donahue (Curt May) believing Jack has evidence, he can finally expose the cover-up. Unfortunately, Burke is well away of Jack’s plans and is out to stop him.
Produced with a budget of $18 million by the since defunct Filmways Pictures, this was DePalma’s biggest budget so far. And it has a lot of his famous techniques, such as split screens, long tracking shots and the split diopter lens in which someone appears in focus in the background as well as the foreground. It also looks at voyeurism, which is common in a lot of his movies. But it also deals with guilt as well as political cover-ups.
Jack inadvertently got a man killed trying to expose corrupt law enforcement but can’t bring himself to let McRyan’s death be labeled an accident even though everyone wants to leave it at that. There are similiarities between the Watergate scandal as well as the JFK assassination and the Chappaquiddick accident involving Ted Kennedy. Burke with Lithgow’s sneering and creepy smile is a reminder of G. Gordon Liddy, a man who sees what he’s doing is for the betterment of the country. If you have to make an omelet, you got to break a few eggs. He’s sinister and one of Lithgow’s slimy best roles.
Franz is his usual sleavy self he was in these roles before NYPD Blue made him a good guy. Allen has the difficult task of portraying Sally not as an airhead but someone who it takes a little more time to register what’s going on. But Travolta does some of his best work of his career. It’s a shame this movie failed at the box office with less than $14 million and resulting in him going into a rut for most of the 1980s.
Some people have blamed it on the movie’s ending. People don’t go to movies to walk out feeling worse than when they went in to the theaters. But I don’t think there’s any other way to end this movie. Watergate and Chappaquiddick seemed to be about high ranking officials getting away with it while the regular people have to pick up the pieces and carry on.
Maybe if it had been released a few years earlier in the 1970s, it might have been more successful. By 1981, people didn’t want to look back anymore. Regardless, DePalma’s career didn’t suffer much. He made Scarface after this and then Body Double. He also was able to direct the “Dancing in the Dark” music video for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band which gave us Courtney Cox.
What do you think? Please comment.