Saturday, May 7, 2011

Blow Out: Travolta excels in an early role

Blow Out (crime, drama, mystery)
Directed by Brian De Palma
Starring John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow and Dennis Franz

Criterion | 1981 | 108 min | Rated R | Released Apr 26, 2011

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Video resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1

English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0

English SDH

Single 50GB Blu-ray Disc

The Film 4.5/5

Jack Terry (Travolta) is a sound-effects man who works on B-movies for a Philadelphia-based studio. One night, he decides to go out to record some new effects. He captures the sound of leaves rustling in the wind, a frog croaking, an owl hooting and a couple’s conversation. They mention that someone is watching them from a nearby bridge.

Jack inadvertently records a car accident and a gunshot heard before it veers off the road into a creek. He runs over and leaps into the water, pulling a woman from the car, but too late to save the man she is with. The woman, Sally (Allen), survives the accident with no apparent injuries. The dead man turns out to be Governor McRyan, a potential presidential candidate.

The police write the crash off as an accident, but Jack knows what he heard and reconstructs the scene in his mind by listening to his recording. We find out that someone caught the crash on film and sold it to various publications. Jack matches the images to the sounds and is certain the crash was caused by a bullet hitting a tire. None of the authorities seem interested so he seeks Sally’s help to prove his theory.

De Palma builds suspense throughout and a plot to discredit the Governor is gradually revealed. Sally was working for Manny (Franz), a private eye, and they have a history of using her to ruin people’s public images with the help of a henchman known as Burke (Lithgow). Burke has an agenda of his own and exceeds his authority.

Nobody wants to admit that McRyan had a woman in the car and a full cover-up is set in motion. Burke is out to tie up any loose ends and silence the potential threat from Jack and Sally.

De Palma brings to mind Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up as well as a number of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. He confirms in the special features that the film was inspired by the JFK shooting and subsequent events.

The resulting mix is an intriguing mystery, filled with suspense and a little action. Will Jack be able to prove his theory and make it public, or will it be buried? The final shot is a memorable one and the film doesn’t have a traditional Hollywood ending. It works for me.

Video Quality 4/5
It’s difficult to grade Criterion’s newly-restored presentation because the quality varies. In brightly-lit scenes, detail is exceptional considering the age of the film. Some of the scenes are dark and filled with heavy grain. I didn’t notice any dirt or debris, but did see vertical lines on the screen a couple of times. Overall, I was pleased. Criterion does everything possible with its transfers and didn’t let me down here.

Sound Quality 5/5
Sound understandably plays an important part in the film and the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track delivers. Some scenes are made up of a multitude of different sounds, presumably to draw our attention to what we are hearing. It’s particularly evident when Jack is recording his sound-effects tape and captures the car’s crash. Dialogue is clear throughout and it’s hard to imagine a better quality track than this one.

Special Features 5/5

A 58-minute interview with De Palma conducted by Noah Baumback (1080p). De Palma talks about many technical aspects of the film including the split diopter and Steadicam, as well as some of the difficulties faced during filming. He also mentions Alfred Hitchcock and some of the things that influenced the story.

De Palma’s 1967 film, Murder a la Mod, appears here in full (81 minutes, 1080p).

Interview with Nancy Allen (26 minutes, 1080p).

Interview with Garrett Brown, inventor of the Steadicam (16 minutes, 1080p).

Louis Goldman photographs showing stills from Blow Out.

Trailer (2 minutes, 1080p)

34-page booklet

Criterion’s recent release does justice to an important film and is thoroughly worth the upgrade to Blu-ray. You’re actually getting two De Palma films in this package and Blow Out is one of Travolta’s best films. I wonder how influential his performance here was in convincing Quentin Tarantino (a huge De Palma fan) to cast him in Pulp Fiction

At the time of writing, the Blu-ray is available at the bargain price of $18.99 at

Overall score 4.5/5 

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