Blow Out, one of the finest, most energetic and eclectic of that revered roster of ’70s paranoia films, didn’t actually burst onto the screen till 1981.
Steeped in the weary cynicism of Reagan-era America (“so you’re an ear-witness to an assassination?”), the film nonetheless draws on – and weaves a genre-skipping slasher streak into – the best of what went before.
De Palma’s finely calibrated thriller about sound recordist Jack’s struggle to piece together audio-visual proof that will turn a politician’s fatal car accident into a conspiracy heats up the essence of Coppola’s chilly surveillance masterpiece The Conversation and pairs it with the photo clue-chase of Antonioni’s Blow-Up.
Layered with potent watery echoes of Chappaquiddick, the conspiracy-dogged deaths of RFK and JFK and the Watergate scandal, what should be shrieking overkill becomes a skilful symphony of fear.
As fan Edgar Wright once observed, there’s not a wasted shot. De Palma was at the top of his game here, so hot after Dressed To Kill that producer George Litto was able to raise the pricey $9m budget for Blow Out on a seven-page outline alone.
Deservedly so, since the film yokes De Palma’s extraordinary technical expertise to suspenseful, heartfelt storytelling. As Michael Atkinson’s authoritative booklet essay spells out, one of the film’s delights comes from its unexpectedly rich mix of ingredients.
Darkly, painfully funny (John Lithgow’s serial killer sobbing a fake confession or stalking a disgruntled whore), it’s smeared with zesty pop-culture references (witness the film’s trick Carpenter-style, sexploitation-slasher opener) as well as nervy police- and politico-baiting paranoia.
The biggest film-fetishist outing since Peeping Tom, it’s self-reflective but not self-indulgent, initiating us into Jack’s craft as he painstakingly edits the accident footage in a tense step-by-step sequence that elicits celluloid nostalgia in these digital days.
There’s real heart here as well as virtuosity, most of it radiating from Nancy Allen’s plucky dim-bulb Sally, half of the flawed, bickering central couple.
But it’s John Travolta’s tenderness, the improv-speckled lightness of touch that Nancy Allen pays tribute to in the Rag Doll Memories featurette, which really makes the movie.
His Jack Terry is a flustered, life-swiped everyman on a desperate search for redemption, his cynicism tempered with a disarming sweetness. Heightening those life-size emotions is De Palma’s inventively mobile camera: for starters, that famous 360-degree shot that mimics the useless spooling of Jack’s erased tapes.
Revisited in an operatic mode, as the camera revolves around a firework-crowned Jack helplessly clutching Sally’s corpse above the Philadelphia Liberty Day parade, it’s one of the few Hitchcockian moments that De Palma permits himself here.
Fittingly, Arrow’s Blu-ray transfer has a crisp soundtrack that shows off the meticulous aural design of Jack’s nighttime animals-and-accident sound tapestry.
Prick up your ears for the headphone torture of the final chase, reminding one that De Palma’s chief cheerleader, Pauline Kael, dubbed him “a master of sight and sound”.
Hooray for the red, white and Blu-ray too, since the strong colours in this transfer, with just enough grain for film feel, show off the purposefully patriotic palate – the omnipresent crimsons and blues create a sardonic, sleazy parody of the bicentennial celebrations.
All this consummate craftsmanship was heartily snubbed on release by audiences, shying from the film’s bleak ending and Travolta’s disconcertingly fallible hero.
What they missed, but you don’t have to, is what Quentin Tarantino (whose worshipful 1994 chat with De Palma is rolled into the booklet) called “one of the most heartbreaking shots in the history of the cinema”, as Jack memorialises Sally in his unique way.
Yes, it’s a great scream.