I love Brian De Palma.
However, ours is not an unconditional love. Some things test the definition and the committment of our love. I’ve seen “Mission To Mars.” I’ve seen “Redacted.” But when our love is perfect… well… I’ve seen “Phantom of the Paradise,” too.
Our love can all be traced to a theatrical viewing of “Blow Out” in 1981, when I had no idea who he was. I walked into the theater unaware, and I walked out a fan for life.
The film opens with a truly hilarious movie-within-the-movie called “Coed Frenzy.” Oh, god, how I wish De Palma had really made “Coed Frenzy,” because it looks like the sleaziest film ever made. And at the end of this five minutes of uber-slasher footage, De Palma pops the balloon with a joke. But that joke has two punchlines, and the other one’s not delivered until the closing frames of the film, where it’s finally deployed to devastating effect. John Travolta and Nancy Allen both give winning movie-star performances, at their very best here, and John Lithgow contributes maximum creep as a shady politico aide. And although the general style and subject of the film fit neatly with the overall arc of De Palma’s career, there’s a reason “Blow Out” is the first of his films to end up on this list. This is the most streamlined and simple of his thrillers, the one I’d recommend to anybody. It’s smart. It’s confident.
And that ending. Man… that ending.
[more after the jump]
Like I said… I saw the film in 1981. I was eleven. I forget the circumstances that led to me seeing it, since R-rated movies were still something I had to carefully make a case for each and every time, but I’m guessing John Travolta had something to do with it. He was a huge movie star at the moment he made this, just before his dramatic slide off the face of the earth that lasted until “Pulp Fiction” 13 years later. This was right on the heels of “Urban Cowboy” and “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever.” And honestly… one of the great injustices of his career is that he didn’t catch a huge bounce as an actor based on his work here, because I don’t think Travolta’s ever done better work in anything. I’ve read that he was suffering from insomnia during this shoot and that much of the nervous anxious energy he has in the film is real. Whatever it took, the result is worth it. This is my favorite Travolta performance of any era of his career. He plays Jack Terry, a soundman working for a producer of low-budget horror films in Philadelphia, and at the start of the film, he’s told to find a great scream to replace the awful, anemic one at the end of a shower attack in the film they’re making. He heads out late one night to record some other background sounds, and while he’s standing on a quiet bridge, he hears the squeal of a car’s tire on asphalt. The next three minutes change his life, as well as the lives of scumbag private eye Manny Karp (Dennis Franz), aspiring movie make-up artist Sally (Nancy Allen), and Presidential hopeful Governor McRyan (John Hoffmeister), who ends up dead in a car accident. Jack manages to pull Sally out of the car, but by the time he gets her to the hospital, the cover-up is in full swing. Seems that no one wants to admit that Sally was in the car, and Jack starts getting pressure to shut up about what he saw. Or, specifically, about what he heard.
Obviously, this film draws on influences like the Chappaquidick tragedy involving Ted Kennedy and the JFK assassination and the French ’60s hit “Blow-Up,” but De Palma mixes all of these elements into a paranoid thriller that feels original, and not just like a bunch of pieces jammed together. Setting it in Philadelphia during “Liberty Day,” a patriotic holiday that bathes the whole world in red, white, and blue, De Palma uses this simple thriller plot to peel back the entire subtext of the post-Watergate ’70s. There were any number of “don’t trust the government” thrillers made after Richard Nixon and his army of clowns bungled the break-in and shattered America’s trust in its leaders permanently, but this film raises the stakes by suggesting that absolutely no one is to be trusted. Jack Terry doesn’t even trust himself, and in an extended flashback sequence, we learn why. Jack’s written like an emotional zombie, but Travolta keeps showing us signs that there’s something still alive inside this guy, although deeply wounded. Nancy Allen had a career that seems typical to actresses, with a brief window where she got big roles, followed by a dramatic fall-off as she got older. De Palma was the director who gave her many of her best roles in films like “Carrie,” “Dressed To Kill,” and this one, and when their marriage ended, it seemed like both of them suffered as a result. That’s a hazard sometimes when an artist marries their muse… if it falls apart, the work can suffer because personalities are all tied up in the work and in each other. Here, she plays Sally as a total ditz, a girl who takes occasional work as blackmail bait while she waits for a break into the film business, and Allen manages to play her for comedy and pathos both, not an easy trick. She has great chemistry with Travolta, and it’s hard to believe this is the same couple from “Carrie” five years earlier, where they both played venal, stupid, evil little shits. They’re adults here, each of them with baggage, thrown together by accident, forced to depend on each other even though they’re strangers. The more people push Jack to forget what happened, the more he feels compelled to push for answers. Conspiracy theorists have only become more fervent and manic over the years, and we see the seeds of it here, a glimpse of what has become the active roiling underbelly of this country.
I love that Burke (Lithgow) starts out as a fairly generic bad guy, but the more time the film spends with him, the crazier he gets. When he’s ordered to eliminate Sally, he attacks the wrong woman and, improvising, decides to make it look like a sex killing. He then sets out to kill several women who look like Sally so that her death will be written off as part of a wave, and not directly tied to the death of the governor. Lithgow makes the most twisted statements sound like he’s discussing something as mundane as where to eat dinner. He’s spent much of the later half of his career playing a cartoon exaggeration of himself, but a look back at this is a reminder of just what a dedicated character actor he’s always been, and how he used to make a huge impression even in the briefest of appearances. Dennis Franz also does indelible work here, so greasy and rancid you can almost smell him every time he shows up onscreen, and overall, this is one of the best ensembles that De Palma ever assembled, and he makes the most of them. Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography is fluid, the camera alive, an active participant in every moment. You can see many of De Palma’s favorite techniques at play here, including split screen, a return to the same moment from different perspectives, and a manipulation of time, and they all work perfectly here. He’s one of those filmmakers who has developed a very particular voice over time, and when it meshes with the right material, as it did here in De Palma’s original script, the result is an absolute education in suspense filmmaking.
This edition of the M/CMSP is dedicated to the great Mr. Beaks. Second film in and I’ve already done De Palma. Not bad, eh?
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