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Blow Out

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Blow Out

Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray

Many film nerds count 1981’s Blow Out as their favorite Brian De Palma flick, and it’s not hard to see why. After all, it focuses on a soundman, Jack Terry (John Travolta), who creates effects for schlock horror movies, and it is, at root, about the construction and reflexive realities of movies themselves. De Palma even opens with a winking pastiche of an ’80s slasher so over the top that it could only have been accomplished by a craftsman like him (it’s idiotic and crammed with coed titillation, but it’s also just two long, complex tracking shots). Now the film nerds at the Criterion Collection have rolled out new deluxe DVD and Blu-ray editions of Blow Out, which ultimately show off both its fine points and its failings.

Before the middle-career breakout in which De Palma delivered blockbusters such as Scarface and The Untouchables, the standard rap on him was that he was a genre-film prodigy at best, at worst a wannabe Hitchcock, ripping off the master’s tricks in the service of lurid psychosexual thrillers. By the time he got to Blow Out, despite the story’s similarities to both Blow-Up and The Conversation, the tricks seemed like his own. Out recording sound effects one night, Jack inadvertently records a car accident that kills a leading candidate for president. When Jack goes back over his tape, he hears a gunshot slightly before the car’s tire blows out. Several painstaking scenes find Travolta’s character literally reconstructing in sound and images the reality of what he witnessed, and digging out ominous new details. Of course, he soon finds himself under the scrutiny of those who don’t want the candidate’s death looked into, leading to a string of the director’s signature suspenseful set pieces, each more potent than the last. (De Palma does no commentary track, but the copious extras include an extended interview with the director by Noah Baumbach that makes it clear what a crafty filmmaker he is.)

One of the aforementioned film-nerd Blow Out fans is Quentin Tarantino, who reportedly cast Travolta in comeback Pulp Fiction based on his performance here. Again, it’s not hard to see why. Jack is a decent guy, smart enough to know he’s in trouble but not smart enough to keep all the way out of it, and the character’s bafflement and growing desperation are beautifully played. He gets a key assist from an exquisite villain: a calculating operative hired to do the ultimate political dirty trick who turns out to be a homicidal psychopath. Played by a young and relatively unknown John Lithgow, he shifts the movie into a higher gear every time he shows up. Many of the secondary roles are poorly conceived and acted, though, from a sleazy fixer (Dennis Franz) to the girl Jack pulls from the married candidate’s sinking car (De Palma regular and, at the time, wife Nancy Allen). Sweet party girl Sally brings out Jack’s protective side, or at least that seems to be the idea, but the character is such a grating dimbulb that Jack’s attraction to her feels forced and her fate feels sealed. It’s one of the big things at the top of a small list that keeps Blow Out an overachieving B-movie rather than a masterpiece.

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