erik lundegaard

Thursday September 29, 2022

Movie Review: Blow Out (1981)


Apparently this is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movies. Back in the day, it was one of three movies he’d show women to see if it might work out between them.

Quentin: It never would’ve worked out between us.

I’ve watched “Blow Out” three or four times now, but my opinion is the same as when I saw it in theaters in 1981. It’s got beautiful shots, great atmosphere, a star turn from John Travolta, and a political thriller plot that mixes elements of the JFK assassination and Chappaquiddick into a storyline that’s basically “Blow Up” for sound engineers. It should work.

But it’s just too stupid.

We get competence from nobody: cops, newsmen, our hero. Even Burke, the superefficient assassin (John Lithgow), keeps screwing up. Doesn’t he have Sally (Nancy Allen) on the waterfront, with no one around, and suddenly he’s dragging her up the stairs overlooking the Liberty Bell Parade in downtown Philadelphia? Why? For the American flag backdrop? Or to give our hero a chance to regroup, since, like an idiot, he drove his jeep maniacally through the parade, crashed into a window display in slow motion and knocked himself out? For how long—10 minutes? Half hour? Long enough, anyway, for EMTs to extricate him and put him in an ambulance and hook him to an IV. And in that entire time, the assassin, whom we’ve seen kill two girls in seconds takes forever to kill Sally. Oh, and he only killed the first girl because he thought she was Sally—so he screwed up right from the start. Oh no, I’m stuck in a Hitchcockian/De Palmian nightmare-scape full of sexy doppelgangers! Should’ve been his first clue. 

The whole movie is framed around incompetence. It begins as a movie-within-a-movie, a low-budget slasher skinflick called “Co-Ed Frenzy” in which our point-of-view is the slasher spying on girls dancing in nighties, masturbating and fucking, until he finally gets to the girl alone in the shower, raises his long hunting knife, and she screams. Kinda. It’s a weak scream. It dribbles out. The sound man, Jack (Travolta), laughs, the producer (Peter Boyden) says we need to fix it, and it becomes this film’s running gag. The producer auditions three girls who don’t cut it. We see two girls pulling each other’s hair trying to dub it. And at the very end what does Jack use? The very thing that haunts him: Sally’s scream as she’s about to be killed by Burke. It’s the oddest of endings: shoehorning horror and tragedy into the running gag. Is it supposed to be funny? Poignant? It just lands sideways. It dribbles out.

It also means that these low-budget filmmakers can’t get a girl to scream right in a slasher flick. WTF? Jack has reels and reels of sounds but none for a scream? Better, after the screw-up is revealed, what is the producer’s directive to Jack? I didn’t like the wind noises you used. Get me more wind noises. Sure thing, Godard. So that’s why Jack is standing outside recording sounds when we get the titular blow out.

Is the incompetence purposeful? A feature rather than a bug? Because it’s everywhere. The highly placed political enemies of Gov. George McRyan, the man poised to be the next president of the United States, decide to catch him in flagrante, so they hire … local scumbag Manny Karp (Dennis Franz)? Then one of their members, Burke, goes rogue with his assassination idea. 

We do get one bright, shining moment of competence. A local anchorman, Frank Donahue (Curt May), does some digging and discovers that: 1) Jack thinks McRyan’s tire was shot out, and 2) Jack has a recording of it. Hey, Donahue got all the facts right! And he’s ready to listen to the story Jack has been trying to tell for half the movie! So of course, at this point, Jack pushes Donahue away. And when Jack finally decides to talk to him, it’s now Donahue's turn to be an idjit. This is his actual quote: “Great. Look, can I give you a call this afternoon sometime?” Think about that for two seconds. You’re a reporter tracking down evidence that the next president of the United States was assassinated, and one guy is ready to give it all to you, and your response is: “Twoish?”

But of course it allows Burke to do his Burke thing. Which leads to more incompetence. Burke, pretending to be Donahue, sets up a meeting with Sally (to kill her), Jack doesn’t like the smell of it, so he calls Donahue back to check on the details. Kidding, that makes too much sense. Instead, suspecting Donahue, he puts a wire on Sally so they’ll get the exchange on tape. “This is just like the police incident that turned me into a guilt-ridden hack, but let’s give it another go.” Meanwhile, waiting to kill Sally, Burke passes the time by killing another hooker. I guess he’s establishing a fact-pattern for the cops. Or writer-director Brian De Palma had a few more Hitchockian homages he just had to give us.

And after all of this incompetence, do you know who, besides Jack, is left standing? Dennis Franz. A true testament to our world. 

Loose ends
If none of this bothers you, I get why you’d like “Blow Out.” I love the gritty location shots around Philly, Travolta’s Sweathog charisma, Lithgow’s low-key villainy, the split-screens, the beautiful foregrounding profiles (owl, Travolta). But the other stuff bothers me too much. I also don’t dig Nancy Allen’s Sally. Apparently she envisioned her character as a rag doll? It shows.

I’ve long had a problem with movies—like “12 Monkeys”—where, when the male hero is shot down, the story basically ends. Everything the girl knows is about to die if the bad guy gets away, but no, cry at the body of the hero instead. Well, this is the other side of the same coin. Everything is about saving the girl, and when she dies, that’s all, folks. The cops conclude that Sally killed Burke while being strangled from behind by Burke. But is the story over? Donahue, you assume, would still be interested in the story—more so now that Sally has died. Manny Karp lives. And shouldn’t all of them be worried for their lives? Aren’t they all still loose ends?

Instead: “It’s a good scream. A good scream.” The ending that dribbles out.

Posted at 08:41 AM on Thursday September 29, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s  
« Dreaming of Conan O'Brien   |   Home   |   Stay Fair! 21 Long Years of Frustration End as Seattle Mariners Make the Postseason »