Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound man for a low budget exploitation filmmaker, providing the sound effects for the tawdry slasher movies that they produce. However, his boss, Sam (Peter Boyden) is unhappy about the scream he hears on a shower murder scene, but Jack has the excuse that what they hear is the actress's own voice, so it's really Sam's fault that it sounds so terrible. Sam is angry and uses this as a trigger for a tirade about the other effects used, which prompts Jack to venture out that night with his recording equipment for more material - but he gets more than he bargains for.
In some of director Brian De Palma's earlier films he displayed an interest in the conspiracy theories that erupted around the assassinations of the sixties, although more often than not these were used for blackly comic purposes. Yet this interest in shady dealings by mysterious organisations never quite left him, and no more so than in Blow Out, which took the incident with Ted Kennedy at Chappaquiddick which pretty much ruined the politician's chances at a try at the top job in America, and built a thriller around it. Many found this promising at the start but were turned off completely by the finale, which was far too bleak for many tastes, yet it built a cult following nevertheless.
Much of this was down to De Palma's quite brilliant technical skills in bringing his self-penned story to the screen, as he went overboard with the camera trickery and sound design to dress up what was a deeply despairing plot with exhilarating trappings. As often with this moviemaker, there were homages in his work, this time paying tribute to Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup in the way his lead character gets embroiled with the conspiracy, although here Jack is in little doubt by the end that what he picked up that evening was an actual crime. The concern is not if this happened, but what the impact on the fabric of society was, as if De Palma acknowledged that even if there were far reaching machinations from the powers that be, they would never truly be exposed.
Not surprising coming up for two decades after the fact of those original, world shaking assassinations when this was made, with no solutions to the pressing questions they raised ever found. Jack would be a kind of Abraham Zapruder if that amateur had turned detective, because when he's out with his microphone that night, he hears a car heading over a bridge, a bang, and then the vehicle crashing through the barrier and into the river below. Leaping into action, he swims over to save the occupants, but unlike Chappaquiddick, it's the politician who dies and the girl, Sally (Nancy Allen), who survives; he takes her to the hospital and begins to notice that nobody really wants to hear that their prospective President was in a car with a woman not his wife.
Sally is one of De Palma's most vulnerable characters, not the sharpest pencil in the box but Jack's heart goes out to her, and so will yours due to Allen's sweet performance. He turns protector for her, and with good reason because one of the schemers has become as obsessed with the case as Jack is, except that this man (John Lithgow) is working for the other side and setting up serial murders to cover up his eventual plans to kill Sally. It's about this mark that Blow Out tends to lose many people, but possibly not because De Palma is displaying his accustomed coldheartedness towards his characters. No, here he exhibits a genuine frustration that the decent souls end up the ones suffering the most, and the infamous final five minutes seem to be him throwing up his hands and crying, "What's the point?" as all the good intentions of Jack, and it follows anyone who tries to beat The Man, come to nothing. Surprisingly for a filmmaker who often prided technical skill over emotion, Blow Out feels like a real tragedy; desperately sad. Music by Pino Donaggio.
He's not aversed to directing blockbusters such as Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible, but Bonfire of the Vanities was a famous flop and The Black Dahlia fared little better as his profile dipped in its later years, with Passion barely seeing the inside of cinemas. Even in his poorest films, his way with the camera is undeniably impressive. Was once married to Nancy Allen.
One of the many, many things I love about this is that it uses the actual filmmaking process as an often ambiguous means of detailing human relationships. As Kim Newman noted in his seminal book Nightmare Movies, the closing scene is either an act of frozen-hearted callousness or else heartfelt tribute. I take it to be the latter. A superb movie.