Blow Out (1981)

A silent killer stalks a house of female coeds. He leers at them from the windows, breaks in, corners a young woman in the shower. As he raises his knife, she lets out a half-assed, laughable scream.

The opening scene of Brian de Palma’s Blow Out, which we later learn to be a sound effect dub session for a second-rate horror flick, plays as a perfect prologue to this crime thriller: exploring the connection (or disconnection) between what we see and what we hear, weighted by the underlying theme of exploitation of women by men.

A sound man (a young John Travolta in his prime) is out on a recording session in the outskirts of Philadelphia, as a car flies off a bridge, with a man and woman trapped inside. He is too late for the man (an up-and-coming politician) but successfully rescues the woman – a living, firsthand witness to the accident.

Fearing the woman may be next, the two pair up and dive deeper to solve the mystery –listening extensively to the sound man’s initial recording, plunging into alternate personae, even charging headfirst into the face of danger. Their major breakthrough comes by procuring video of the incident, and meticulous editing to map the two media together.

Certain plot elements, as well as atmosphere set by the gritty crime underworld, were reminiscent of de Palma’s excellent Dressed to Kill, though it was through these similarities that I came to further appreciate Blow Out’s own strengths:

First, though the captivating performance by Nancy Allen. In Dressed to Kill, she too wears many hats, as a high-end call girl / seductress / detective, paired surprisingly by the personality and charm of a typical girl next door. In Blow Out, however, she is a hopefully naïve, tragic heroine, as vulnerable to the men around her as the coeds from the slasher flick in the movie’s prologue. Her effective performance really illustrates her strong acting chops.

Second, Blow Out has a terrifically innovative use of the split-screen. In addition to capturing multiple images of action and dialogue (as does Dressed to Kill), the split-screen choices further map the subconscious journey from sound to image. As Travolta’s character is outside at night, recording audio, he hears sounds from afar, as the camera reveals blurred images of them – only to come into focus, as he (and we) identify their source.

Not only is Blow Out a nail-biting, and surprisingly moving, crime drama, but the overall discourse in which it operates – this relationship between sound and image – permeates the entire film, supporting not only the narrative but provoking interesting questions about the media of film. As an audience, we may be just as naïve as Nancy Allen’s character, taking what we recognize for granted, and too often lack the conspiracy theorist’s perspective, embodied by John Travolta’s character. This fascinating notion solidifies Blow Out as an important film not only from its exciting plot, but also from its broader implications toward the media of film.

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