While in post-production on a low-budget slasher film, Philadelphia sound technician Jack Terry (Travolta) is told by his producer that he needs a more realistic sounding scream and better wind effects. After leaving the studio to record potential sound effects at a local park, he sees a car careen off the road and plunge into a nearby creek. Jack dives into the water to help, discovering a dead man and a young woman, Sally (Allen), still alive, trapped inside the submerged car. He pulls her to safety and accompanies her to a local hospital.
A police detective interviews Jack and collects all the details. When Jack sees Sally in her hospital emergency room, she wants to leave the hospital. Jack is immediately attracted to Sally and asks her out for a drink. Jack learns that the driver of the car was the governor (and a presidential hopeful), McRyan, and the girl, Sally, an escort. Associates of the governor attempt to whitewash the incident by concealing that Sally was in the car, and they persuade Jack to smuggle Sally out of the hospital with him.
Jack listens to the audio tape he recorded of the accident, wherein he distinctly hears a gunshot just before the tire blow out that caused the accident. He sees a television report that, seemingly by coincidence, Manny Karp (Franz) was also in the park that night and filmed the accident with a motion picture camera. When Karp sells stills from his film to a local tabloid, Jack splices them together into a crude movie and syncs them with the audio he recorded, becoming even more suspicious that the accident was actually an assassination.
Unknown to Jack, Sally and Karp were both co-conspirators in a larger plot against Governor McRyan. Another presidential hopeful wanted to hook Governor McRyan with a prostitute, take their pictures, and publish them so that McRyan will drop out of the race. So, he hired Burke (Lithgow) and asked him to take the pictures of Governor McRyan with Sally. However, Burke decides to alter the plan by blowing out the tire of McRyan's car with a gunshot, thereby causing an accident. When the authorities arrived to find McRyan with Sally, Karp would be there to film it all. Although Burke hadn't planned for McRyan to be killed, he is little bothered by the development since that still accomplished the goal of removing McRyan from the presidential race.
Aware that Jack and Sally are trying to prove that the car's tire was shot, Burke plots to destroy Jack's evidence and to murder Sally. He begins murdering local women bearing a resemblance to Sally, whose deaths are attributed to a serial killer, "the Liberty Bell Strangler" so that he can cover up the future murder of Sally. Jack draws Sally into his own private investigation of the incident. Though initially reluctant, she eventually agrees to cooperate with him.
They go out, have a drink and Jack reveals his past life to Sally. When Jack was a child, he was a geek and was interested in audio and sound effects. He served in the military as a radio guy. Later on, he joined the police to investigate corrupt cops by wiring up undercover cops. During one of his attempts to collect evidence against a police captain, the undercover cop started sweating, and the radio stopped transmitting. When the undercover cop tried to fix his radio, he was spotted and killed by the captain. This killing deeply affected Jack and he felt that he was responsible for the killing. So, he quit his police detective work and started working in movies.
In her attempt to help Jack investigate the killing of Governor McRyan, Sally steals Karp's film of the car accident, which, when synced to Jack's audio, clearly reveals the gunshot that anticipated the blow out. Nevertheless, nobody believes Jack's story, and every move he makes is immediately silenced by a seemingly widespread conspiracy. In the meantime, a famous talk-show host, Frank Donahue (Curt May), wants to interview Jack on air and release his tapes to his 8 million audience. Initially, Jack refuses to be interviewed by Donahue, but, once he has Karp's film and indisputable evidence in his hands, he calls Donahue and agrees to be interviewed.
Burke, too, follows the development by rigging Jack's home telephone after noticing Jack leaving Sally's apartment. Burke disconnects Jack's home telephone, calls Sally as Donahue and asks her to meet him at a train station with the tapes. When Sally reaches Jack's home and tells him about Donahue's call, Jack becomes suspicious. Before handing over Sally the tapes, he makes a copy of them, but, he can only make a copy of the audio tapes as he doesn't have time to copy the video tapes.
Jack wires Sally with a hidden microphone and sends her off to meet with Donahue. Shadowing her from a distance, he is alarmed to see that his supposed contact is Burke, not the reporter. Sally is the last loose end for Burke to eliminate, and her death will be attributed to the "Strangler". Immediately realizing that she is in danger, Jack attempts to warn her, but Sally and Burke slip out of range and into the Liberty Day parade. Jack makes a mad dash across Philadelphia, attempting to head them off and rescue Sally. He crashes his Jeep, however, and is knocked out.
By the time Jack awakens, Burke has gotten the video tapes from Sally and thrown them into a river. He then takes Sally to a rooftop where he attacks her. Still listening in on his earpiece, Jack spots them. He hears Sally screaming as he rushes to save her, but he is too late. He arrives just after Burke has strangled her to death and is marking her body with the Strangler's signature bell pattern. Jack takes Burke by surprise, overpowers him, and manages to stab him to death with his own weapon. Jack, devastated and on his knees, then takes Sally's lifeless body in his arms.
Ironically, Burke's death, combined with the loss of the video tapes, tie up the last loose end. Jack's audio tapes alone are insufficient to prove a gunshot and the cover-up is a success. Jack begins listening to the recording of Sally's voice over and over again, becoming obsessed with it. In the last scene, Jack is back in the editing room and it is shown that he used Sally's death scream in the exploitation film. The producer is ecstatic that he found a perfect scream and plays it multiple times, forcing Jack to cover his ears.John Travolta as Jack Terry
Nancy Allen as Sally
John Lithgow as Burke
Dennis Franz as Manny Karp
Peter Boyden as Sam
Curt May as Donahue
John Aquino as Detective Mackey
John McMartin as Lawrence Henry
Robin Sherwood as Betty
After completing Dressed to Kill, De Palma was considering several projects, including Acts of Vengeance (later produced for HBO starring Charles Bronson and Ellen Burstyn), Flashdance, and a script of his own titled Personal Effects. The story outline for Personal Effects was similar to what would become Blow Out, but was set in Canada.
De Palma scripted and shot Blow Out in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, his home town. The film's $9 million budget was high for De Palma and Filmways spent an additional $9 million to market the film. De Palma considered Al Pacino for the role of Jack Terry, but ultimately chose John Travolta. Travolta lobbied De Palma to cast Nancy Allen for the role (the three had previously worked together on Carrie); De Palma hesitated at first—he and Allen were married at the time and did not want Allen to have a reputation for only working in her husband's pictures—but ultimately agreed. In addition to Travolta and Allen, De Palma filled the film's cast and crew with a number of his frequent collaborators: Dennis Franz (Dressed to Kill, The Fury, Body Double); John Lithgow (Obsession); cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Obsession); editor Paul Hirsch (Hi, Mom!, Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Obsession, Carrie, The Fury); and composer Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Home Movies, Dressed to Kill).
Seventy percent of the film was shot at night. "Basically I just shot Blow Out straight," replied cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond., "... By not diffusing and not flashing as much ... That doesn't mean I necessarily like that look but I think it was good for the picture. You see, I like a softer look, a more diffused look." During the editing process, two reels of footage from the Liberty Parade sequence were stolen and never recovered; the scenes were reshot with insurance money at a cost of $750,000. Because Zsigmond was no longer available, László Kovács lensed the reshot sequences.
Thematically, Blow Out almost "exclusively concern[s] the mechanics of movie making" with a "total, complete and utter preoccupation with film itself as a medium in which ... style really is content." In numerous scenes, the film depicts the interaction of sound and images, the manner in which the two are joined together, and methods in which they are re-edited, remixed, and rearranged to reveal new truths or the lack of any objective truth. The film uses several of DePalma’s trademark techniques: split-screen, the split diopter lens, and the elaborate tracking shot.
As with several other De Palma films, Blow Out explores the power of guilt; both Jack and Sally are motivated to help right their past wrongs, both with tragic consequences. De Palma also revisits the theme of voyeurism, a recurring theme in much of his previous work (for example, Hi, Mom!, Sisters, and Dressed to Kill). Jack exhibits elements of a peeping tom, but one who works with sound instead of image.
Blow Out incorporates multiple allusions both to other films and to historical events. Its protagonist's obsessive reconstruction of a sound recording to uncover a possible murder recall both Michelangelo Antonioni's film Blowup and Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation. The film alludes to elements of the Watergate scandal and the JFK assassination. The film also recalls elements of the Chappaquiddick incident, although De Palma intentionally tried to downplay the similarities.
De Palma also explicitly references two of his previous projects. At one point in the film, Dennis Franz watches De Palma's film Murder a la Mod on television. Originally, the character was to watch Coppola's Dementia 13, but Roger Corman demanded too much for the rights. A flashback where Travolta recalls an incident where his work got a police informant killed was also taken from an abandoned project, Prince of the City, which was ultimately directed by Sidney Lumet.
Blow Out opened on July 24, 1981 to positive reviews from critics, including several ecstatic ones and earning a 90% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the site's consensus reading "With a story inspired by Antonioni's Blowup and a style informed by the high-gloss suspense of Hitchcock, DePalma's Blow Out is raw, politically informed, and littered with film references.". In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael gave the film one of her few unconditional raves: "De Palma has sprung to the place that Robert Altman achieved with films such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville and that Francis Ford Coppola reached with the two Godfather films—that is, to the place where genre is transcended and what we're moved by is an artist's vision.... It's a great movie. Travolta and Nancy Allen are radiant performers." Roger Ebert's four-star (out of four) review in the Chicago Sun-Times noted that Blow Out "is inhabited by a real cinematic intelligence. The audience isn't condescended to.... We share the excitement of figuring out how things develop and unfold, when so often the movies only need us as passive witnesses."
Despite positive reviews, the film foundered at the box office due to terrible word of mouth about its bleak ending. Blow Out made $13,747,234 at the box office.
Blow Out's public reputation, however, has grown considerably in the years following its release. As a "movie about making movies," it has earned a natural audience with subsequent generations of cineastes. In particular, Quentin Tarantino has consistently praised the movie, listing it alongside Rio Bravo and Taxi Driver as one of his three favorite films. In homage, Tarantino used the music cue "Sally and Jack" from Pino Donaggio's score in Death Proof, Tarantino's segment of Grindhouse. Noel Murray and Scott Tobias of The AV Club put Blow Out at #1 of their list of De Palma's best films ("The Essentials"), describing it as, "The quintessential De Palma film, this study of a movie craftsman investigating a political cover-up marries suspense, sick humor, sexuality, and leftist cynicism into an endlessly reflective study of art imitating life imitating art." In April 2011, the film became a part of the Criterion Collection with a DVD and Blu-ray release. Extras include new interviews with Brian De Palma and Nancy Allen. The Criterion release also includes De Palma’s first feature-length film Murder a la Mod.
The film was given a widespread release internationally; first in the Netherlands on September 24, 1981 and then in Australia on January 14, 1982, Hong Kong on February 11, 1982, in France on February 17, 1982 and in Japan on March 20, 1982.
2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Mystery Film
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists: