The first time I saw this intensely brilliant film I sat in the theater for a long time afterwards and tried to put together my thoughts about what I had just seen. Brian De Palma had made a mesmerizing film, no question, but it was John Travolta I could not get out of my mind. After portraying young men struggling with who they were in Saturday Night Fever (1977) for which most people forgets he was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor, Grease (1978) and Urban Cowboy (1980), De Palma cast him as an adult. Travolta responded with a performance that drew comparisons to a young Brando, with his smoldering intensity and dawning realization that he was caught up in something far bigger than he ever realized.
Despite strong reviews the film flopped at the box office, not being able to pull audiences away from the blockbusters Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Superman II (1981) or Arthur (1981). I suspect if the studio could do it over again they would release the film in the fall, in awards season, because it was certainly deserving of Academy Award attention, and for much more than Travolta.
Jack Terry (Travolta) is a sound man for a B movie company that routinely cranks out bad horror movies. He gathers sounds and mixes them into the film, but the producer is tired of listening to the library of sounds Jack has created and demands more. So he heads out one night to gather new sounds and tapes the wind, an owl, night sounds. Holding his microphone like a conductor holds his baton, with love, with confidence, he works taping the sounds of the night. Suddenly he hears the screeching of tires, and records an accident, or what looks like an accident and a limousine veers off the road and into a small river. Jack springs into action and jumps in the water to help save a young woman in the car unable to get out. He pulls her out, and they are taken to the hospital where he learns that the man in the limo with her was a US senator who was going to run for President. The entire incident needs to be swept away for the sake of the man’s family, who his handlers do not want anyone to know that he was in the back of a limo with a very attractive, very willing young woman. Terry befriends the young girl, Sally (Nancy Allen) and suspects that there is a lot more going on here than he is being told.
When he runs back the tapes he made he hears very clearly a gunshot before the tire blows out and the car goes into the river. The audio meter clearly leaps off the chart when the shot is heard and Jack digs deeper. He comes to know that a photographer was in the bushes waiting for the car, and shot the entire accident. Realizing he can make a film with the shots and his sound, he does and it becomes clear that the accident was in fact a murder. But the more he digs the more he finds out about Sally who was working in cahoots with the photographer to disgrace the senator. What neither of them realize is that the man who fired the gun has decided to kill Sally, but will first massacre several young women who look like her to make her death look like a serial killing. Realizing Sally is in danger and needs protection, Jack tries to save her.
The final scene of the film he has dubbed Sally screams into the horror film and whispers as he hears the scream again and again in his mind, it is a good scream he says. Travolta is simply sensational in the film giving a multi layered performance that went beyond anything we had seen him do up to that point in his career. His growing awareness that he is into something terrible shows on his face and in his body language. He portrays Jack with a quiet intensity and arrogance, but reveals to us his failings in his career too. It is a superb performance that should have earned the actor his second Oscar nomination. Nancy Allen gets some getting used as the dreamy voiced kewpie doll Sally, but once we get used to her we see that much of what she does is an act to keep men at bay. She is one of those rare beauties who gets hit on all the time and knows the effect she has on men. In a very different role John Lithgow portrays the killer, terse, confident, vicious with no remorse or no sense of human feeling at all. A year away from his breakthrough in The World According to Garp (1982), it is an alarming performance.
De Palma directs with the confidence of a master filmmaker, using strong cuts, split screens, and allowing his actors to slip under the skin of their characters in every way. Blow Out (1981) is simply a masterpiece, and sadly one of the most under seen and under appreciated films of the last thirty years. Thank God for Criterion who released a stunning Blu Ray of the film a couple of years ago…a must see.