Travolta had previously starred in De Palma’s “Carrie” (1976) and wanted to be in “Blow Out.” Interestingly enough, in between those two films Travolta had become the biggest star in Hollywood. Travolta had starred in “Saturday Night Fever,” “Grease,” and “Urban Cowboy.”
“Blow Out” was one of the final paranoid, government conspiracy films which were popular and had a really, really good run through the 1970s (“The Parallax View,” “Three Days of the Condor,” and “The Conversation”).
It’s possible because “Blow Out” was a late entry to the paranoid cinema of the 70s it is seen as lesser, but it isn’t.
“Blow Out” is the story of Jack Terry, sound effects technician for a low budget horror movie company. While recording sounds for a new film project in a Philadelphia park, he sees a car careen off the road and plunge into a nearby river. Jack dives into the water and saves a woman, but cannot save the driver.
At the hospital, Jack realizes he has saved a female escort named Sally (a wonderful Nancy Allen), but the dead driver was the governor of Pennsylvania and a presidential hopeful.
However, it isn’t until he reviews that evening’s recordings that Jack believes he has inadvertently recorded a political assassination.
With Jack’s skills as a sound effects technician he is able to piece together the event and prove the governor was killed, possibly by a political rival.
On Jack and Sally’s trail is Burke (John Lithgow), the trigger man and a single-minded psychopath.
But that’s not the case. Burke is preparing and the sequence will mean more as the movie progresses.
“Blow Out” is also fascinating because De Palma shows us how movies and sound effects are made and edited, in a non digital world. Watching Jack splice reel-to-reel tape and make a stop-motion re-creation of the deadly car-wreck is like being able to witness a craft that is no longer practiced.
De Palma is a devotee of director Alfred Hitchcock, which shows in most of De Palma’s work in the 1970s, and it can be a blessing and a curse.
Cinematic “theft” or homage is tough and is difficult to avoid. De Palma has been accused of being a Hitchcock thief for years, but at he’s lifting from the best.
While “Blow Out” deals with large issues — assassination, political intrigue, corruption — the film is quite intimate. There are echoes of “Blow Out” in an underrated 1999 Jeff Bridges’ film “Arlington Road.” So many of us simply don’t know the truth and we probably never will.
The ending in “Blow Out” would not have been allowed to happen in today’s movie-marketing world.
The movie begins with a joke about a bad scream sound effect and ends with a twisted punch line to the joke. It’s ghoulish and sits uneasily, but in Travolta’s performance there is a melancholy and heartbreak that allows the end to not be exploitive.