Director Brian De Palma’s masterpiece gets the 4K UHD treatment from Criterion, and the result is a completely immersive, utterly dazzling home video experience. Enhanced by Dolby Vision HDR, Blow Out is a symphony of sight and sound that continues to hold us spellbound 40 years after its premiere. A riveting story packed with paranoia and conspiracy theories, dynamite performances from John Travolta and Nancy Allen, and above all, De Palma’s electrifying technique and meticulous craftsmanship combine to create one of the best films of the 1980s, and this Criterion edition honors it with one of the best 4K UHD transfers I’ve seen. Excellent audio and all the supplements from the 2011 Blu-ray add to the allure of this essential release. Must Own.
After I saw - and became obsessed by - Dressed to Kill upon its initial theatrical release in mid-1980, I eagerly anticipated writer-director Brian De Palma's next movie. I didn't quite know what to expect when I settled into my seat to watch Blow Out the following summer, but when the lights came up, 19-year-old me instantly deemed it De Palma's best film to date. Sadly, America didn't share my lofty opinion. Blow Out failed miserably at the box office and spent the next couple of decades languishing in the massive shadows of such De Palma blockbusters as Scarface and The Untouchables.
I still can’t understand why. Buoyed by an absorbing story, potent themes, stellar performances, and De Palma’s often electrifying technique, Blow Out delivers on a number of levels, and though it owes Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation a nod for inspiration, it feels far more original than Dressed to Kill. With its subjective camera shots, extreme close-ups, and eerie elegance, Blow Out still exudes a Hitchcockian flavor, but it’s less of a homage than some of De Palma’s other features. The edgier tone and grittier presentation helped Blow Out stand apart, and as time passed, the movie gradually gained the recognition and respect it always deserved.
Today, it's more relevant than ever, fitting oh-so-snugly into our current culture of paranoia, conspiracy theories, political corruption, and media saturation. None of those issues are new - movies have been exploring them since the 1930s - but Blow Out seamlessly stitches them together and juxtaposes them against an ironic backdrop of flag-waving patriotism. De Palma employs a red, white, and blue color scheme, sets his film in the birthplace of democracy - Philadelphia - and climaxes the story with celebratory festivities (a parade and fireworks) surrounding a fictional holiday called Liberty Day…all while the film’s hero doggedly struggles to expose and broadcast an ugly truth no one wants to hear anything about.
Jack Terry (John Travolta) works as a sound man for a schlocky film company that cranks out low-budget, lewd slasher flicks that sexually exploit young women. While out recording fresh sound effects in a remote area one evening, he witnesses a car careen off a bridge after one of its tires blows out. Jack jumps into the river and saves a woman trapped in the vehicle, but the male driver, who turns out to be George McRyan, the governor of Pennsylvania and front-runner in the upcoming presidential race, perishes.
At the hospital, Jack tells a detective he recorded the accident with his highly sensitive audio equipment and heard a bang right before the tire blew out. The detective thinks it was just an echo, but Jack is adamant, and soon becomes convinced someone intentionally shot out the tire to cause the governor's death. In addition, the girl Jack rescued, Sally Bedina (Nancy Allen), is not McRyan's wife, so of course McRyan's advisors want to cover up the tragedy's dirty details to spare the governor's family embarrassment and protect his legacy.
Jack befriends Sally, a trusting and naive woman who somehow got roped into the seedy business of putting prominent men in compromising situations so sleazy photographer Manny Karp (Dennis Franz) can sell the incriminating pictures to the tabloids. Jack gradually gains Sally’s trust and, with her help and his technical know-how, plans to provide concrete evidence of the crime to a local TV news reporter in the hope it will inspire the disbelieving police - who consider Jack a crackpot - to pursue justice.
Blow Out is fascinating and exciting, but part of its allure stems from the allusions De Palma deftly draws to a couple of actual incidents, both of which involve the Kennedy family. The fatal accident that kicks off the movie practically duplicates the notorious 1969 tragedy and scandal involving Senator Ted Kennedy, who drove off a tiny bridge on the island of Chappaquiddick near Martha's Vineyard, plunging his car into a bay. Kennedy’s passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne (a campaign worker for Ted's late brother Bobby), couldn’t escape the submerged car and drowned. Blow Out also references the famed Zapruder film, which captured the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and spawned various conspiracy theories about who was really behind the president’s death. Jack tries to create his own film of the car crash by syncing his recorded sounds to a frame-by-frame photographic account of the accident published by a news magazine that bought Karp's footage of the event.
In addition to its political angle, Blow Out provides a humorous look at both filmmaking on the cheap and the artifice of cinema. De Palma not only spoofs the voyeurism and sexual exploitation that defined many of his previous works (the sly nod to the shower and array of scantily clad, nubile young women cavorting about in Blow Out's tongue-in-cheek film-within-a-film prologue call to mind episodes in Dressed to Kill and Carrie), he also shows how movies - and news organizations - package and manipulate reality for public consumption, and how truth often gets lost in the process.
Like many of his cohorts who rose to prominence in the 1970s, De Palma is a muscular, creative director who pushes the envelope. Some might call his split-screen shots, use of a split-focus diopter lens, 360-degree pans, overhead perspectives, and penchant for slow motion photography gimmicky, but I find such “tricks” creative, visually stimulating, and a clever way to heighten audience involvement and increase dramatic tension. Part of the reason Blow Out works so well is because De Palma’s technique adds luster to the narrative without distracting from it.
Blow Out cemented my respect for De Palma, but perhaps more importantly, it engendered my respect for Travolta, who I previously dismissed as a lightweight. Yes, I loved him in Grease and he impressed me in Urban Cowboy, but he's brilliant in Blow Out. He projects strength, integrity, sensitivity, and brash confidence, all of which make him an honorable and endearing hero...although watching him drive his Jeep directly into the path of the Liberty Day parade in a desperate and heroic attempt to rescue Sally, and seeing the frightened marchers frantically scatter and dive for cover to evade the speeding juggernaut evokes too many nightmarish flashbacks of crazed individuals doing the exact same thing to randomly kill innocent people in recent times. That unfortunate sequence aside, Travolta's quiet intensity propels the film and makes it impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. His devastation at the end of the movie is truly heartbreaking and his tender chemistry with Allen gives Blow Out its emotional core.
I must admit I wasn't initially a fan of Allen's slightly ditzy portrayal - possibly because I was so enamored of her tougher, flashier work in Dressed to Kill - but her insightful interpretation of Sally has grown on me over the years. Allen really flips the floozy role on its ear, infusing Sally with warmth, self-effacement, and fragility. Though it would be easy to pigeonhole her as a hooker with a heart of gold, Allen brings so much more depth and feeling to the role, resulting in a haunting portrayal that stands the test of time. Just as in Dressed to Kill, she and Franz, who nails the oily, opportunistic Karp, create beautiful music in their scenes together, and as a psychotic who takes his political hit job to the nth degree, John Lithgow is wonderfully creepy in a pivotal part.
Blow Out may not rank as De Palma's best-known film, but perhaps more than any other, this stylish, riveting, and surprisingly emotional thriller captures the essence of his artistry and craftsmanship. Every time I see it, I admire it more, and as the years pass, the messages it sends about politics, the media, opportunism, and fanaticism hit home all the harder. De Palma has helmed many dynamite movies over the course of his multi-decade career, but Blow Out just might be his finest. It's truly a defining work.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
Blow Out arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard Criterion case. Both a 4K UHD and standard Blu-ray disc are included in the set. (All the supplements reside on the Bu-ray.) A 36-page booklet featuring an essay by Victor Fleming biographer Michael Sragow, critic Pauline Kael's original New Yorker review of the film, a frame-by-frame look at the titular accident, a cast and crew listing, transfer notes, and several photos is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec for the 4K UHD disc is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with Dolby Vision HDR. Video codec for the Blu-ray disc is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4. Audio on both discs is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Surround. Once the discs are inserted into the player, the full-motion menus with music and sound effects immediately pop up; no previews or promos precede them.
First things first. This 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer with Dolby Vision HDR is an absolute stunner and one of the best 4K UHD renderings of a 1980s film I have ever seen. De Palma packs so much information into almost every frame and all of it is so exquisitely presented here, I kept rewinding and freeze-framing to catch, savor, and marvel at the crystal clarity, pitch-perfect contrast, and drop-dead-gorgeous color. According to the liner notes, "Based on the 2011 2K restoration, which was supervised and approved by director Brian De Palma, this new 16-bit 4K restoration was created on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative." From De Palma's signature split-screen shots and overhead angles to a breathtaking 360-degree pan that completes six revolutions, this transfer gracefully and seamlessly handles every challenge, faithfully honors Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography, and delivers a sublime viewing experience.
Grain is beautifully resolved, and though the levels fluctuate somewhat, the picture remains remarkably consistent throughout and flaunts a lovely film-like feel. Inky blacks heighten the impact of the early accident scene and climactic fireworks sequence, the whites of the hospital garb, Travolta's T-shirt, and the snowscape in the denouement are crisp and stable, but it's the wide color spectrum and intense saturation (thank you, Dolby Vision) that grab and hold attention. Reds are especially bold and lush, and splashes of it continually crop up and perk up the frame (red dresses in a shop window, a red blanket, a red ashtray, and the intermittent glow of red lighting that symbolically bleeds across the screen). The red, white, and blue geometric motel wallpaper (part of the patriotic color motif De Palma employs throughout the movie), pink costumes in the Liberty Day parade, pale blue telephone, and an array of fireworks hues also delight the eye, and the shot of a shocked and devastated Travolta with the fluttering reds, golds, and blues of the fireworks shading his face is a dazzler.
There's so much detail and so much depth in this transfer it's often difficult to digest, process, and admire all the information in the frame and still follow and enjoy the narrative. The deep focus shots (produced using a split-focus diopter lens) are breathtaking. Whether it's the face of an owl in the foreground and Travolta with his sound gear in the background, an extreme close-up of Travolta's profile in the foreground and political flunkies in the background, or Lithgow's profile in the foreground and a hooker and sailor in the background, all the elements are amazingly well defined. So, too, are the razor-sharp close-ups that expose every pore, hair follicle, blemish, and strand of stubble on Travolta's face and showcase every knob, gauge, and mechanism on Jack's playback and editing equipment.
And if all that detail isn't enough, there's the shot of Travolta and Allen through a rain-soaked car windshield with the wipers running; the weaves and patterns of various costume fabrics; the glistening wet streets of Philadelphia; myriad reflections in windows and mirrors; and little droplets of water dotting the hospital's sliding glass doors. You can even see all the dots of ink in the tiny black-and-white paper pictures of the car when Travolta compiles a mini flip book of the accident.
I could continue raving ad nauseam about this exceptional transfer, but you get the picture. Previous home video editions of Blow Out have looked terrific, but none of them can compare to this dynamite presentation. If you're a fan of this film, an upgrade is essential, and if you're a videophile, you'll want this disc in your collection.
It seems the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround track, which the liner notes state was "remastered from a 35 mm magnetic track," is the same one that graced Criterion’s 2011 Blu-ray release, and that’s not at all a bad thing. While I’m sure a 5.1 remix could really maximize all the nuanced sound that’s such a huge part of Blow Out’s story and presentation, this 2.0 surround track totally delivers the goods. Crisp, clear, and well-modulated, the track supplies sonic oomph when necessary (the final scream cuts like a knife and the bang before the blowout wields appropriate power), but really caresses all the subtleties, like rustling leaves in the wind, a hooting owl, a croaking frog, the rattle of film running through a projector, a heartbeat, the din of the hospital emergency room, and all the ticks and clicks of the recording equipment. Palpable stereo separation across the front channels and a few noticeable bleeds to the rears widen the soundscape and create an enveloping experience.
A wide dynamic scale gives Pino Donaggio's elegant score plenty of room to breathe, while superior fidelity helps it fill the room with ease. Dialogue is often competing with effects and music, but it's always well prioritized and easy to comprehend. No distortion creeps in and no hiss, pops, or crackles distract from the constant barrage of stimulating sounds that complement almost every frame of this sensory thriller.
The entire supplemental package from the 2011 Blu-ray has been ported over to this 4K UHD release. No new extras are included. All the special features reside on the Blu-ray disc.
Interview with Brian De Palma (HD, 58 minutes) - Filmmaker Noah Baumbach chats extensively with De Palma about such topics as the story's genesis (a combination of Blow-Up and The Conversation), his first use of the Steadicam, how he devised and shot certain scenes, and how he constructs and executes his trademark split-screen shots (and the purpose behind them) in this essential 2010 interview. De Palma also talks about his obsession with the conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination, how the theft of a portion of the original Blow Out negative necessitated extensive reshooting, Hitchcock's genius and how it influenced him, Nancy Allen's crippling claustrophobia, Travolta's warmth and generosity, and how the downbeat ending likely contributed to the movie's financial failure.
Interview with Nancy Allen (HD, 25 minutes) - In this revealing 2011 interview that includes a number of rare production stills, Allen recalls working with Travolta on Carrie and how their terrific chemistry carried over into Blow Out, relates how she developed her "little rag doll character," notes the differences between the original script and finished product, recounts the harrowing experience of filming in the submerged car, and expresses her wish that Sally and Jack could have had a more overt romantic relationship. She also talks about De Palma's penchant for extensive rehearsal and respect for actors, sings the praises of Dennis Franz, and rues the movie's poor marketing campaign.
Interview with cameraman Garrett Brown (HD, 15 minutes) - The inventor of the Steadicam system demonstrates how the camera is used, shows off a variety of models, and discusses the challenges of shooting the cheesy horror movie that opens Blow Out and making it look as bad as possible. Brown calls it "a great, fun bit of filmmaking" and lauds De Palma's understanding of and brilliant use of the Steadicam in several movies.
On-Set Photographs by Louis Goldman (HD) - Twenty-four black-and-white production stills featuring Travolta, Allen, De Palma, Lithgow, and others are included in this photo gallery.
Murder à la Mod (HD, 80 minutes) - This weirdly fascinating 1967 experimental film, written and directed by De Palma and shot in black-and-white, mixes elements of Psycho and Rear Window into a bizarre-o narrative about a novice filmmaker, his sleazy low-budget movie, and the brutal killing of his leading lady. (Is it just my imagination or does the elevator in the filmmaker's building look almost exactly like the one in which Angie Dickinson gets slashed to death in Dressed to Kill?) De Palma blends slapstick comedy, non-linear storytelling, and multiple character points of view with nudity, gore, and lots of technique (fast-motion photography, overexposed frames, a handheld camera, and dream sequences), but the finished product only provides glimmers of the craftsmanship that would soon define this visionary director.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - "It began with a sound no one was ever supposed to hear." That's the voiceover line that opens Blow Out's original preview that contains snippets from the film's most intense scenes.
Blow Out in 4K UHD is a knockout! Brian De Palma’s riveting tale of political skullduggery, paranoia, and one man’s dogged effort to expose corruption and murder remains just as dazzling - and relevant - today as it was four decades ago. This new 4K transfer with Dolby Vision heightens the film’s power and impact and showcases De Palma’s craftsmanship, artistry, and invention like never before. Though the audio and supplements are identical to Criterion’s 2011 Blu-ray, this 4K UHD release is well worth upgrading for the stunning picture quality alone. This edition of Blow Out completely blew me away, and fittingly honors what I consider to be De Palma’s masterpiece. Must Own.