Did De Palma’s ‘Blow Out’ Blow It?

Revisiting the Early 80s Audio Thriller

Years ago, I was commissioned by Medium’s “Members Only” content editors to write a pair of essays that juxtaposed Antonioni’s ‘Blow Up’ and Coppola’s ‘The Conversation.’ A third pitch, this one, didn’t make the cut… Until now! After further meditation on how what we see (and hear) is not necessarily what we get, I offer you Did ‘Blow Out’ Blow It?

In old-school Hollywood parlance, a “cross-pitch” is when the tone and scope of a prospective project are described as being “this meets that.” Some screenwriting blogs would have you believe that this seldom occurs “in the room,” as it were. But I’ve been in those rooms, and it does.

My go-to example for this style of pitch is “Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress meets The Dam Busters…in space,” which, through some Hollywood alchemy, should result in Star Wars. Of course, if you don’t add the space part, you might end up with The Bridge Over the River Kwai. You can’t do better for an uncut, pharmaceutical-grade cross-pitch than Antonioni’s Blow Up meets Coppola’s The Conversation. The result is Brian De Palma’s 1981 neo-noir Blow Out, in which a B-movie soundman accidentally records evidence of a murder only to have that evidence vanish along with his fundamental existential assumptions. 

The particulars sound less promising: A post-Grease (but pre-talking-baby-movies) John Travolta is Jack Terry, an ex-cop-turned-low-budget horror movie sound designer in Philadelphia. The connective tissue that links Jack’s improbable professions is his past rigging up undercover cops for audio surveillance when “wearing a wire” was like wearing a bowtie — often more successful if someone else put it on you.

Why Philadelphia? Dunno but we do know that it was De Palma’s hometown (he’s since graduated to Manhattan).

One night, while collecting sounds with a shotgun mic and a tape machine, Jack serendipitously records a Chappaquiddick-esque scene in which a presidential candidate’s car tire blows out, and he and a young woman careen off a bridge into a river below. 

As if to reset a certain Kennedy’s karmic balance, this time, the woman (Nancy Allen) is saved (thanks to Jack’s impromptu Aquaman act), and the politician dies. When Jack later learns who the dead man is and discovers what he recorded — the sound of a gunshot that precedes the blowout by microseconds — he’s drawn into the mystery and the wiles of the woman he saved. 

The advertising tagline was “Murder has a sound all of its own,” and that sound, according to the politicos and their henchman (a creepy as-hell John Lithgow), should be “silence.”

The operative word above is “serendipitously,” which, like Antonioni and Coppola’s similar films, comes juxtaposed the concept of “surreptitiously.” 

Like Blow Up’s photographer Thomas and The Conversation’s Harry Caul, Jack Terry acquires his radioactive McGuffin accidentally and spends the rest of the movie trying to deal with the hot potato until unseen sinister forces take it off his hands for him. The accidental Peeping Tom and the incidental eavesdroppers become the seen and heard. 

The (Deafening) Sound of Silence 

Apocryphally, De Palma began to germinate this “sound of psychosis” film after lamenting the paltry sound effects available to him when mixing Dressed to Kill. He dispatched his sound editor to the field to record some new material (deducing from the Internet Movie Database that guy could be Lowell Mate or Michael Moyse, both of whom share credits on Dressed to Kill and Blow Out).  

“He would go out in his backyard and record new stuff for me,” the director said in De Palma, Noah Baumbach, and Jake Paltrow’s documentary about the director. 

Though Mate or Moyse may have inspired Jack Terry’s vocation, his film’s themes, if not the total arc, are a baton that already had Antonioni and Coppola’s fingerprints before De Palma joined the relay and ran with it. And though he crosses the finish line, it’s in a protracted, bloody stagger that brutalizes both his characters and audience by the end.

Here’s the problem — spoiler alert! — he kills the woman. Nancy Allen’s Sally is a post-Marilyn Monroe coquette with aspirations to be a makeup artist whose involvement in seedy underworld schemes places her at the scene of the film’s inaugural murder. Of course, she is unaware of her ultimate disposability in that scenario and those who perpetrate it — including her writer-director. Sally’s death comes at the hands of Lithgow’s psychopathic enforcer character mere moments before Jack can save her (though he does manage to record the scream that precedes her death since she was also outfitted with a wire). 

Why does De Palma kill the character and prevent Jack from being the hero? Because. And also — despite Blow Out’s 1981 release, it is essentially a 70s-era flick and rife with that era’s preponderance of paranoia, political conspiracy, existential dread, and downer endings. For context, Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark came out the same year, and his devotion to upbeat, cheeky heroism came to define the decade.

More than merely being behind the times, however, De Palma’s choice to kill Sally was borne of unquestioned cinematic tradition and sexist notions of inherent female vulnerability. As he shared on the interview website The Talks, “If you’re going to follow around somebody to murder, I’d much rather be photographing a woman than a man.” Naturally, the interviewer followed up with, “Why?”

“It goes back to the old horror films with the girl in the negligee walking around the haunted house with a candelabra,” said De Palma. “They’re a lot more interesting to look at and a lot more vulnerable than if you had Arnold Schwarzenegger walking around carrying a candelabra. You just wouldn’t be too concerned that there would be any problems.”

Among those “old horror films” is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which seems to have informed scenes throughout De Palma’s oeuvre. Filmmaker Peet Gelderblom’s video essay, Hitchcock & De Palma Split Screen Bloodbath, makes a convincing case for De Palma’s obsession with the older director, who likewise never wanted for an excuse to pile up the bodies. 

The so-called “Hitchcock Blonde,” — a term that has the same problematic ring as “Bond Girl” — was the director’s good luck charm. His most memorable films all feature them  — Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, Janet Leigh, Grace Kelly, and Tippi Hedren. Sometimes their characters died — sometimes, they were just subject to cruelties onscreen and off. Hedren, now 87, revealed that Hitchcock made unwanted sexual advances and, when rebuffed, threatened to end her career. He also had animal wranglers hurl ravens and pigeons at her — for five days — while shooting his Birdemic prefiguration The Birds. “It was brutal and ugly and relentless,” Hedron wrote in her memoir.

With De Palma, the cycle of cinematic abuse continued — the blonde must suffer and probably die. Incidentally, he also killed Nancy Allen’s character in Dressed to Kill. That time she was a prostitute whose throat was slashed by a murderous, self-hating closeted transsexual played by Michael Cain, dressed in a blonde wig, sunglasses, and trench coat. Wait, no… it’s just a blood-drenched dream sequence — whew! What fun. And what a good sport that Nancy Allen is — you know, being De Palma’s wife at the time and all.

De Palma is not alone in sacrificing women at the altar of cinema gods to make some statement. 1981 is also the year that the post-Tolkien fantasy Dragonslayer, dressed in familiar Dungeons & Dragons drag, flipped the script on the “save the princess” trope. 

In this film, the princess gets barbecued by a dragon no one manages to slay in time. Here, it seems the filmmaker was trying a little too hard to avoid genre trappings, which might have been better avoided by not attempting in the first place. Indeed, the princess need not die, nor, for that matter, does she need to be saved — she could have saved herself. Four years earlier, Princess Leia added a new dimension to the damsel in distress story by not seeming distressed when that short stormtrooper announced, “I’m here to rescue you.” Leia was very likely already working on her own plan to escape the Death Star and her bad dad, as in Alexandra Bracken’s recent re-novelization of Star Wars: A New Hope The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy.

Blow Out makes the same mistake but worse. It’s glaringly obvious while contemplating the film within the context of its cinematic siblings Blow Up and The Conversation. Sure, repeated viewings of anything can bring the kind of familiarity that leads to contempt — but there’s more

I was introduced to this “more” in a car ride with my parents in 1981. We had just seen Dragonslayer at the United Artists 6 theater in downtown Santa Rosa, California. I was nine and my brother six. It was late and I was clinging to consciousness as I rested my head against the rear passenger window of the Volvo sedan my father piloted through the midsummer ’burbs. And he was fuming to my cinephile mom about “asshole auteurs” who try to outsmart tried and true archetypes (to give you context, they’ve had a running argument about Goddard’s assholeness my entire life). I had no idea what my dad meant at the time of his apparent fidelity to concepts advocated by Jung and Joseph Campbell. But his ire was real and imprinted on me the inkling idea that, beyond rules and traditions, something ineffable functions deep beneath the fabric of art and stories. And this should not have trespassed lest one tempts the wrath of the movie gods. Or my dad.

My mom, who had weaned herself on the Nouvelle Vague and enjoyed the novelty of subversion for its own sake, was also nonplussed by the needless death of the maiden but for other reasons — namely, the fungibility of women’s bodies and body counts in movies. That was easier for me to comprehend as I crested my first decade. My dad’s point took longer.

What I think my father was getting at, ultimately, is that stories evolved to be inherently instructive, that embedded in their very essence are the keys to understanding ourselves and the world we inhabit.  With its invisible tennis ball rolling in the grass, Blow Up invites us to consider that believing isn’t necessarily seeing. The Conversation raises the question of who watches the watchmen — or at least who’s listening? Despite our most valiant efforts — Blow Out tries to tell us — life is a hopeless, squalid void, bookended by a scream upon entering and leaving it. Naturally, that’s just one man’s point of view.

Here’s another: De Palma was wrong.

About Daedalus Howell

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