The significance, potential and importance of expertise dominate Blow Out. The opening is fake horror, a scene from a pretend low budget movie. This second rate and cynical accomplishment can be compared to the superior cinematic skills that will facilitate the main film. Hero Jack Terry is a movie sound technician, and his expertise enables him to discover a political conspiracy. Sally is important to Jack because she has witnessed the murder of a politician. Sally and Jack argue when he becomes bored listening to her talk about make up skills. Brian De Palma wrote and directed Blow Out. He delivers important set pieces where the audience is invited to admire the soundtrack editing ability of Jack Terry. On the two occasions in the film when the expertise of Jack is inadequate it has fatal consequences. Jack Terry may be confused, his name consists of two Christian names, but he has hope for redemption. This is rooted in his faith in the benefits of technical knowledge. The visual spectacle that makes the film so memorable demonstrates the superior expertise of Brian De Palma. The style of De Palma mimics the approach of Alfred Hitchcock. The guilt that Jack Terry has to endure because of a previous mishap repeats a Hitchcock theme of how guilt can be transferred to the innocent. Throughout Blow Out the expert English craftsman is honoured.
Blow Out has suspense and is poignant and amusing. De Palma expects us to believe in his characters and their circumstances but he also uses his technical ability with sound and images to insist we never forget that we are watching a well-made film. Expertise is also important to the plot of Blow Out. Danger is created by people who make mistakes and neglect their expertise. Indeed the initial murder is an example of an ambitious professional interfering with the modest plans of amateurs. At the end of the film, Jack Terry is doomed and without hope of redemption. His expertise remains, and Jack has now found and inserted an authentic scream in the cheap movie. His expert contribution has been enhanced by the exploitation of a human sacrifice. He has lost his humanity but whatever the circumstances his expertise will gain from experience. In a dehumanised and brutalised world expertise not only gets things done. It is the only saving grace that we have.
The final murder occurs before the American flag at a Liberty Day Parade in Philadelphia. It is at that moment Jack loses his hope of redemption and freedom from guilt. It disappears amidst celebrations of misunderstood patriotism and corrupted idealism and in the City where a new innocent world was once imagined. The explosive and beautiful fireworks that fill the sky are an empty orgasm beyond two people who tried to resist but failed. And the supposed promise of expertise and accomplishment has been exposed as nothing more than an impotent myth. When we hear the scream of the victim repeated in the cheap horror movie, we realise just what gets lost in the garbage that our expertise helps create.
Blow Out is a masterpiece of American mainstream cinema, which is just as well because its conclusions are not cheerful. The movie is now over thirty years old. Back then the world was different. The hospitals in the movie has ashtrays to help sick patients smoke themselves to death. But then there were people who thought that Brian De Palma might be a genius. His films since Blow Out have been uneven but the exceptional talent is always evident. De Palma wrote the script of Blow Out. He presents a world dominated by unseen corrupt masters who control the media and politicians. The rest of us are either hired gangsters or, because we avoid resistance to a world based on greed and a desire for power, willing stooges. Jack witnesses a murder and wants to see and hear more. ‘Nobody wants to know about conspiracy,’ he says. ‘I don’t get it.’ The accusation by Jack can apply to people who like to relax watching a film. Movie audiences did not want to be accused or to have to think of themselves as stooges of crooked masters. Neither did the tragic ending help. Word got around, and the box office receipts were modest.
Although there is humour in Blow Out it is unstressed, sly and cynical. Some of it is visual, odd moments like the appearance of the impossibly short policeman in a hospital. In The Untouchables, De Palma paid homage to the Odessa Steps sequence from the Eisenstein classic Battleship Potemkin. In Blow Out there is a scene where Jack Terry drives past a factory called Potamkin. It is a night scene, and the word on the side of the plant is not obvious and appears to be misspelt. We can be forgiven for thinking De Palma is not that desperate for the audience to see what interests him. Blow Out resembles the Antonioni film Blow Up, and the similarity in the titles is deliberate. Blow Out is not as obtuse and has more style and substance. Other movies are also in the mix, references to Rear Window by Hitchcock and The Conversation by Coppola can be spotted. All these movies feature a lonely and socially impaired man reduced to voyeurism. De Palma, though, is keen to make his own statement. He once said that ‘Hitchcock is the dictionary of cinema’. The social criticisms of De Palma oblige him to defy Hitchcock. The fireworks effect is borrowed from To Catch A Thief but its revised context has scorn for romantic celebration. Jack Terry and Sally are ordinary people. Sally has a low wage job and associates with low life Manny Carp because she needs the money. The orgasmic fireworks are not meant for poor Sally. In Rear Window the injured journalist LB Jeffries observes his neighbours. Jack Terry is curious about the people who matter, the powerful. The killers across the courtyard that interest Jeffries in Rear Window cause mayhem but the real villainy in Blow Out is out of reach but connected to the powerful by a telephone.
Throughout his career Brian De Palma has been criticised for a lack of feeling towards women. Three are killed in Blow Out. His defence is that he makes suspense movies. This is what happens to women in his kind of films, he said. If De Palma is misogynistic, it did not prevent him from making the female rites of passage movie Carrie. Faced with hostile and cruel people looking for yet another victim to persecute and humiliate her, Carrie responds with violent vengeance. There is a lot of blood before she is finished. In Blow Out, Sally is lied to by Jack, exploited in the schemes of Many Carp and identified as a disposable victim by the assassin Burke. There is no romantic relationship between Jack and Sally. He saves her life at the beginning of the film but insists that his act puts Sally in his debt. He manipulates their conversations. The rescue attempt at the end happens because Jack needs redemption from previous failure and to confirm his technical expertise. The fate of Sally is not of prime importance to Jack. No one except Sally believes that the handsome man who works in movies could be interested in a shop girl earning low wages. Jack is only curious about what Sally knows and what she can do for him. The prostitute who is murdered is a hard case but there is no doubt that she is a victim of men. Her prospects and existence pose questions about urban community and what is supposed to be being celebrated by the Liberty Day Parade.
No one needs to be an expert in history to realise that the initial murder in Blow Out has parallels with the Chappaquiddick incident. De Palma could have picked other incidents to integrate into his story but he picked an event when a liberal Senator from the Democratic Party revealed the true nature of his priorities. De Palma has mellowed with age but thirty years ago he had a radical core or at least his films did. He was suspicious of institutionalised politics, even those on the left. The radicalism of De Palma may not have conformed to revolutionary theory but in Blow Out he is clear about how the world has been shaped by those who believe they are entitled to have power over vast resources and large numbers of people. In Blow Out the lust for power and money amongst the powerful persuades them to have affection for economic systems that legitimise criminality. Their legacy is a world of moral absurdity and the rest of us relying on expertise for personal credibility. This week Donald Trump gave the State of the Union address to the American people. He talked of optimism, freedom and hope. A lot of flags were waved, and afterwards Trump returned to his main business, which is to ensure that his fellow billionaires have even more money and power and that the rest will have to be even more subservient. Meanwhile a mellowed Brian De Palma can be forgiven for listening to the speech of Donald Trump, looking again at the modest box office receipts for Blow Out and wondering just why the hell do so many people believe what they do.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.