This article supplements Slate’s Conspiracy Thrillers Movie Club. To learn more and to join, visit Slate.com/thrillers.
Starting with a blade-wielding killer who attacks a woman in the shower, Brian De Palma’s 1981 conspiracy thriller Blow Out begins where his 1980 erotic suspense film Dressed to Kill ended, but only so that the director can distance himself from the kind of stalk-and-slash film that he has been pigeonholed as making. “I’m typed as … the specialist in B-movie horror,” he has said, and so Blow Out begins with a scene that is gradually revealed to be from a film-within-the-film, a low-budget horror movie called Coed Frenzy. Made as a kind of parody of Halloween (according to Steadicam operator Garrett Brown), the scene is deliberately bad, with the camera adopting the perspective of the heavy-breathing killer as he leers at scantily clad coeds before plunging his knife into one.
The parody announces De Palma’s new distance from this type of subject matter, as does the Brechtian moment of the showering woman’s feebly unconvincing scream, which throws us out of the B-grade horror movie and into the more serious film that De Palma really wants to make—one where he is “dealing with a kind of material that I’d never dealt with before and trying not to pander to the bloodlust of the audience, which is what I’ve been accused of doing many times.”
Jack (John Travolta), a soundman on cheap horror movies, is recording some nocturnal noises in a park when his microphone picks up the pop of a tire blow out, which causes a car to careen into a river. The car’s male driver drowns, but Jack is able to dive in and save the female passenger, Sally (Nancy Allen). The driver was Governor McRyan, possibly the next U.S. president, and Jack hears what he thinks may be a gunshot just prior to the tire blow out on his recording of the incident, making him suspect that it might have been an assassination rather than an accident. It turns out that a photographer, Manny (Dennis Franz), was also present on the scene, and Sally reveals that he was there to take compromising pictures of the governor’s adulterous dalliance with her.
By syncing up Manny’s still photos with his own audio recording, Jack is able to confirm both the sound and the bright explosion of a gunshot preceding the blow out. Thus, it is revealed that there was yet another man at the scene, Burke (John Lithgow), an operative for the opposing campaign, who exceeded his orders—which were to compromise, not to kill—and shot out the governor’s tire, leading to his death. Now, to cover up all evidence of the crime, Burke impersonates a TV news reporter and meets with Sally, who brings him the synced-up film. Jack has planted a bug on Sally, enabling him to locate her by following her screams and to kill Burke just before the man is about to plunge an ice pick into her. But it is too late: Burke has already strangled her to death with a wire. With Burke having destroyed the film, there is no longer any convincing evidence of the politically motivated crime that Jack was trying to prove. In a gesture of cynical despair, Jack dubs Sally’s screams into the low-budget horror movie Coed Frenzy. They are very convincing.
In some ways, Blow Out marks a return to De Palma’s earlier film, Greetings, where Lloyd (Gerrit Graham) is obsessed with proving that there was a conspiracy behind the John F. Kennedy assassination. Like Jack, Lloyd tries to solve the mystery by studying photos of the incident (blown-up frames from the Zapruder film). Lloyd’s obsession with his investigative work also takes precedence over any relationship he might have with a woman, as when he traces bullet trajectories on the nude body of his would-be girlfriend.
The danger to her that is merely implied is made manifest in Jack’s case when he persuades Sally to go alone to meet with the man who ends up being her killer. True, Jack thinks this man is a TV news reporter, not Burke; Jack has wired Sally so that he can listen in; and Jack believes that the only way both of them will be safe is if the truth about the assassination is made public, in which case there would no longer be any point in killing them to shut them up. But Jack is also hell-bent on proving that his theory about the conspiracy is correct, and in this he puts his own ego above Sally’s safety.
As De Palma says, “[Jack] manipulated [Sally] to prove that he is right. He didn’t think that his experiment was maybe going to cost the life of the girl he loves; no, for him, the truth must be divulged, whatever the price.” In Jack, De Palma recognizes a surrogate for himself, for he, too, is prone to such an obsessive involvement in his own work that his relationship with those he loves can be imperiled: “When I’m making a film, nothing else matters to me. The outside world no longer exists. I have only one obsession: to realize the project that is in my head. I no longer pay any attention to my wife or my children and sometimes I’ve lost everything because of it.”
Besides the John F. Kennedy assassination, another historical influence on Blow Out is the 1969 Chappaquiddick affair, in which lingering questions about Ted Kennedy’s involvement in an incident where his car drove off a bridge and into the water, leaving his female companion dead, ended the possibility of his becoming president. Not only has De Palma reversed the outcome, as if to punish the man for his philandering (the politician dies while the woman survives), but with Manny there to take photographs of the man in flagrante delicto, De Palma seems to make another obsessive reference to that incident from his own past when he attempted to film his father committing adultery in order to obtain evidence for his mother’s divorce. (Sally claims that the photos Manny took of her in bed with adulterers would be used by their wives in divorce cases.)
We also know that the young De Palma tried to capture his father’s adulterous conversations on tape and that he considered taking a .22-caliber rifle with him to the confrontation with his father and the mistress, so it would seem that there are additional connections between De Palma and Jack, who tapes McRyan in the car with Sally, and between De Palma and Burke, who shoots McRyan as De Palma had thought of shooting his philandering father.
Jack’s involvement with his own work, as well as his technician’s obsession with using a wire to prove the conspiracy, contributes to Sally’s death and serves as an object lesson for De Palma regarding his own tendency to cut himself off from the world and from human relationships when he is working on a film. Actual soundman Jim Tanenbaum described how “withdrawn” De Palma was while working on Blow Out: “He was wearing a Sony Walkman when we were shooting, but the bleed from the earpieces was not acceptable so he had to shut them off.”
Like Jack, who struggles to move beyond immurement in his tech world and make human contact with Sally, De Palma has encountered a similar challenge in his own life. “He appears to be aloof and caustic,” says Allen (De Palma’s wife at the time), “but there are always these two big soulful eyes. I saw a sensitive, vulnerable man who needed me.”
It is as though De Palma had split and scattered himself across three characters—Jack, Manny, and Burke—each of whom is gradually revealed to have been present at the scene of adulterous McRyan’s death: Jack listening (with his shotgun mic taping the incident), Manny viewing (with his camera shooting photos), and Burke shooting (with his rifle). Throughout Blow Out, Jack can be read as someone who tries to confirm his identity as a good man by differentiating himself from his dark doubles, Manny and Burke.
Blow Out did not fare well at the box office. One reason for this may have been the lack of a romance between Jack and Sally when, as De Palma ruefully admitted, “That’s what the public expects, it seems, when you have John Travolta and a pretty girl.” “How can you put John Travolta and Nancy Allen together in a movie [and not have a romance]?” was Allen’s comment. “Everybody’s going to be expecting hot stuff like they had in the car scene in Carrie.”
Another reason for the film’s box-office failure was almost certainly its tragic ending. According to De Palma, “When I showed it to the executives, they were like—’cause the ending’s so shocking—they were like, ‘Oh, my God, what a downer this is!’ ”; “I’ll never forget when the distributor saw it, they almost had a coronary.”
“How can John Travolta [Jack] not save the girl?” asked Allen, noting that audiences had certain expectations of Travolta, who by that time had become a big star, which the film failed to meet. She, editor Paul Hirsch, and producer George Litto lobbied De Palma for a happy ending. As Litto recalls, “I always felt that the girl should be saved in Blow Out and they should go see Sugar Babies [the Broadway musical that Sally wants to attend with Jack], but [De Palma’s] view was different, and the film still has many admirers that way. But I was a firm believer in the Hitchcock concept: y=You meet two people you like; they get into jeopardy; and you root for them to extricate themselves safely.” (Interestingly, the novelization of Blow Out not only features a romance between Jack and Sally but also a happy ending in which he saves her in time.)
The commercial and critical failure of Blow Out crushed De Palma. Apart from a rave review from the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael (“De Palma has sprung to the place … where genre is transcended and what we’re moved by is an artist’s vision”), most critics dismissed Blow Out as if it were Coed Frenzy, the kind of cheap genre film that De Palma was trying to mock and move beyond: “It’s an unusual film, full of meaning and very carefully constructed, but it didn’t do well. I was stupefied when critics said it was a bad suspense and horror movie. Nobody understood it.” The fact that the film recouped only $8 million of its $18 million investment didn’t help. “When you make a movie like Blow Out and the movie makes 20 cents, you’re verboten,” De Palma said. “Forget it. Despite Pauline Kael, despite anybody. You can’t get a job.”