Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): *****
I often have a hard time defending my admiration for Brian De Palma. In this country he's often been considered a rip-off artist who pillages from Hitchcock, Kubrick, Antonioni and Michael Powell, as well as a misogynist and a violent creep. It gets especially difficult when discussing such admittedly obvious turkeys as The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and last year's Mission to Mars. But in France he's considered an auteur, a visual stylist of the first degree (the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinema voted his film Carlito's Way the best film of the 1990s).
If one can get past the shaky plots of some of his films (Snake Eyes, for example), he proves he's a man wrestling with some serious demons on film, even more so than Hitchcock ever did. He's obsessed with voyeurism, sneaking peaks at stuff we're not supposed to see, and with the movies themselves a voyeuristic medium, he's a natural born filmmaker.
Of all De Palma's films, Blow Out is the one I want to give the most repeated viewings. It's a clever updating of Antonioni's Blow Up and Coppola's The Conversation with John Travolta as a movie sound effects man who accidentally records an auto crash that may have been a murder attempt. Nancy Allen (in yet another hooker role) survives the crash and now knows too much. A young Dennis Franz plays a sleazy photographer whose snapshots prove Travolta's theory. And John Lithgow plays a "strangler" who complicates things. Though Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction made Travolta a star, this may be his finest performance as an actor.
The pure physical use of audio and visual is astounding, including the constant manipulation and repeating of sound to suggest menace, as well as visual equivalents, like doubling and echoing. Flushed with the box-office success of Dressed to Kill, De Palma was allowed to use the appropriate but downbeat ending he wanted for Blow Out, which subsequently guaranteed its financial failure. Yet it remains one of his greatest efforts.
MGM's more bare bones Blow Out DVD came out in 2001 with very few extras or enhancement. But the new Criterion Collection edition is mastered in 1:2.40 widescreen, and viewers can now see Blow Out the way it was intended; this is one film that is virtually impossible to sit through pan-and-scanned. New extras include an interview with De Palma (conducted by filmmaker Noah Baumbach), and an interview with Nancy Allen, as well as one with steadicam man Garrett Brown. There's a collection of gorgeous on-set photos by Louis Goldman, and a trailer. The liner notes booklet includes a vintage review by Pauline Kael, one of De Palma's staunchest defenders, as well as a new essay by one of Kael's disciples, the sharp critic Michael Sragow.
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