Monday, October 15, 2012

Blow Out (1981)

Good morning! And what better way to greet the day than this screenshot of twenty-six year old John Travolta? Hi ya, handsome!

Something about fall always makes me want to revisit the "gritty, horror and suspense of the late seventies'" section of my DVD collection...some people would snuggle up with a cup of cocoa and a romantic comedy...I prefer a cup of half-caff coffee and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Last night I succumbed to an impulse and watched Brian de Palma's Blow Out, which I'd bought recently but not actually seen since early high school. I have problems with a lot of de Palma's movies, but five of them are so good I can pretty much ignore whatever else he's made (cough: Dressed to Kill, cough: Body of Evidence)-- Sisters, Carrie, The Fury, Scarface, and Blow Out. What surprised me about rewatching the latter of those was how modern the storyline felt, in spite of the fact that the very Foreigner/Night Ranger-iness of it had kept me from seeing it again for years. Nancy Allen's perm alone is enough to put you off the DVD box, but if you're in the mood for a top drawer conspiracy theory, this definitely comes highly recommended from me.

John Travolta plays Jack Terry, a sound engineer on a B-grade horror picture who witnesses and accidentally records a popular politician's fatal car accident...but, audience, the question you have to ask yourself is... was it an accident after ALL...!! Nancy Allen is a makeup counter clerk who moonlights as a call girl, working with a blackmailer (an impossibly young Dennis Franz) to put herself in compromising situations with people of power-- she's in the politician's car when it veers off the bridge and into the drink. Travolta saves her, and the two begin unraveling the mystery of what really happened that night by focusing on the recording of the crash-- was it an accidental blow out, like the official report says? Or did someone shoot the presidential hopeful's tire out as part of a well-planned political murder and cover up?

John Lithgow (above) has a pretty solid role as a serial killer/hitman who's murdering young girls in the city...if you watched the season of Dexter where Lithgow was the special guest star, imagine that except slightly creepier and way younger. The whole thing is very "can they get the guy before the guy gets them?", with shades of Antonioni's Blow Up and Coppola's The Conversation, but much more popcorn friendly than either. I was really, really impressed by the camerawork and framing of this movie...lots of jarring angles, more use of the split screen de Palma loves, and such tense chase sequences. There's a scene in the Liberty parade sequence, right at the end of the movie, with fireworks, that is just breathtaking (as it simultaneously knocks the wind out of you, from a plot perspective). The man knows his camera, people!

Also, by show of hands, who else forgot how effective, likable, and handsome pre-career renaissance/Pulp Fiction John Travolta used to be?

The iconicity (that is a word, I think...I think?) of his performances in Saturday Night Fever and Grease really does make you forget he was once a serious, solid, movie star of a movie star. He always looks like kind of a lug in still pictures, but there something about him moving, and especially the way he can use the expressiveness of his eyes on film in these pre-Botox days, that just flashes "star, star, STAR" throughout his performance. Travolta, Nancy Allen, and de Palma had all worked together before in 1976's Carrie, and you can see how much he's progressed from "still essentially Barbarino" to "actually believable as himself". Plus the hair and sideburns. Just saying:

Reviews were mixed when the movie came out. De Palma had just done Dressed to Kill, a huge success that the director swears up and down is not an homage to Psycho (that considered, is it accordingly a rip off of Psycho, then? Don't front, de Palma!)I thought Dressed to Kill was awful, but I saw it around the same time as the movies I mentioned above as my favorites of his film catalog, so maybe I was just grading on a harsher scale...I really liked Blow Out much better than its more popular predecessor. Quentin Tarantino lists Blow Out, along with Taxi Driver and Rio Bravo, as one of his top three movies (high praise!).

One underutilized resource I used to look up more info on the movie is the People magazine's hard to navigate sometimes, but you can search full-text of their issues back to their inception in 1974 to the present. That's a lot of pop culture there. I remember when I was insanely into Dallas a few years ago (don't judge!) that I could read of-the-time interviews with all the stars, in copy just as salacious and fan-magazine-y as it is nowadays! Clips from the hits:

12/29/1980  In Blow Out, red-hot director Brian De Palma, 40 (right), reunites old New York flames Nancy Allen, 30, and John Travolta, 26, for the first time since al! three worked on Carrie in 1976. Now Nancy is Mrs. De Palma as well as Travolta's screen love. Complicated? No more so than the tightly guarded plot of their thriller, shooting in Philadelphia. John, it seems, rescues Nancy from a politician's car which has plunged into a stream. The director of the controversial Dressed to Kill may have an even more explosive work in progress about Chappaquiddick. 

08/17/1981 Back when they all were working on 1976's sleeper smash Carrie, John Travolta wasn't even a Sweathog, Brian DePalma was a young director still to make his mark, and Nancy Allen was a recent graduate of Cool Whip commercials.Time does fly. Reunited for the new political thriller Blow Out, the three have played out destinies even more dramatic than their stunning film. DePalma, now 40, with credits like The Fury and last year's hit Dressed to Kill, is a recognized master of the macabre. Allen, 31, has conquered her initial insecurities and squelched inaccurate rumors that she was more than Travolta's pal to emerge as Brian's powerful leading lady onscreen and off. And Travolta, 27, has become, well, Travolta.

The second article, which you can access by clicking on the date, is a the cover story from that issue, so it's pretty in depth! And includes a summary of JT's "average day", as follows:

His day begins at 11, followed by a jazz dance lesson at 1, a light breakfast, a 90-minute French lesson (to better parlez with [friend Gerard] Depardieu), then dinner, a violin lesson (a new passion) at 8, then a movie or nightlife.

I do not believe you, People magazine! Also, what is with these pictures:

Anyway, if you're interested, here's some more clips from years of our Lord 1980 and 1981 about the movie and its director:

Orange Coast magazine review 
New York magazine review
New York magazine blurb

Article on Dressed to Kill and de Palma in New York magazine
Pauline Kael review

Convinced yet? I'm pretty sure this used to be on Netflix streaming, but the pre-Criterion dvd of it I have was less than $5, and was worth way more in terms of entertainment. Check it out!

Have you seen this movie? Thoughts on old school Travolta? What are you watching as fall weather sets in? Do tell!

Have a great Monday and I'll see you tomorrow!


  1. Ha ha, I gave a VHS copy of the original "The Hills Have Eyes" to my son who was attending Pitt State. I came to visit sonny in the dorms to find half the football team in his room watching. My mercenary child was charging 1.00 a head to watch.
    Oh, Lisa, you have to watch "Terrorvision" This is the perfect! horror movie.
    By the way, I have follow up Joan suggestions in your post below.

    1. Haha, your son is a budding enterpreneur!! Look at the title of "Terrorvision" could I resist? Plus the poster has a satellite on a rooftop with an alien eye in, I'm totally watching that sometime this week.

  2. Girl,you better be ready for this one. And I mean it. It is sooooo beyond...uh, I have no comparison. I was an awful mother and all three boys were totally traumatized. And delightfully so!



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