In the enthralling Blow Out, brilliantly crafted by Brian De Palma, John Travolta gives one of his greatest performances, as a movie sound-effects man who believes he has accidentally recorded a political assassination. He enlists the help of a possible eyewitness to the crime (Nancy Allen), who may be in danger herself, to uncover the truth. With its jolting stylistic flourishes, intricate plot, profoundly felt characterizations, and gritty evocation of early-1980s Philadelphia, Blow Out is an American paranoia thriller unlike any other, as well as a devilish reflection on moviemaking.
Continuing their winning streak with the MGM titles they’ve licenced Criterion again delivers a stellar new high-def transfer of Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller Blow Out, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1 on a dual-layer disc. The transfer’s resolution is 1080p/24hz.
Certainly the best I’ve ever seen the film on home video Criterion’s presentation delivers a highly detailed and stable image that rarely falters. It presents beautifully rendered colours that still manage to hold up in darker sequences with reds coming off especially impressive. Blacks are rich and deep, and skin tones look perfect. The transfer presents natural looking film grain but some darker scenes present film grain that can look a bit like compression noise in the shadows but it’s mild. Other than that one area I can’t recall any other sort of artifact.
The materials used have been cleaned up nicely and I only noticed a few minor blemishes. In all just a superb presentation.
Since the film really does rely a lot upon its sound design (after all the whole premise of the film revolves around an audio recording) I was pleased that Criterion’s lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 surround track goes beyond what it really needed to do. Overall audio is crisp and clean, pitch perfect pretty much, and the film’s creative use of sound comes out beautifully here. The surrounds get quite a bit to do, with all sorts of activity happening in the back speakers. The most notable sequence would probably be the sequence where De Palma spins the camera around the room as Travolta looks through all of his tapes. Here you can hear the various whirrings and other noises of the equipment in the room naturally circling you as the camera turns. Just for this scene alone it’s almost a shame that the track wasn’t upgraded to a 5.1 surround presentation but as it stands it’s still quite effective. An impressive track.
And as one would expect Criterion loads on the special features for this film (which had previously received only a basic DVD edition from MGM) starting with a 58-minute interview with director Brian De Palma conducted by Noah Baumbach. I’m not entirely sure why Baumbach is there since he really just asks De Palma general questions or comments on what he likes about the film leading the director to talk about that particular scene or subject. But it’s a nice interview in general and a strong replacement for a commentary. While the interview concentrates specifically on Blow Out, De Palma does talk about the general techniques he’s become known for, particularly the split diopter effects and split screens. He deconstructs certain sequences in the film on a technical level and gets into detail about the editing. He of course also talks about the actors, the score, the clothes, and the film’s failure at the box office. He also talks briefly about Antonioni’s Blow-Up. I was originally disappointed that De Palma didn’t provide a commentary for the film but this discussion is an excellent replacement and covers the film and De Palma’s career thoroughly enough.
Nancy Allen talks about De Palma, Blow Out, and John Travolta for 25-minutes in the next interview recorded for this edition. She starts off the interview talking about Carrie and working with Travolta on that film and how easily they worked together during the making of that one, which carried over to Blow Out. She talks about some of their scenes together and some of the improvisations that did occur. From here she talks about actors Dennis Franz and John Lithgow and then what it was like to work with De Palma professionally. She mentions her claustrophobia and how that played into her scene in the car underwater and then addresses her performance and some of the criticisms she received because of it. I will admit I’m one of those that always had some problems with Allen in this film but after listening to her give an explanation behind her choices, in the end simply adding to the naïve innocence of the character, I realize I’ve probably unfairly judged her in it. Overall it’s a strong interview expanding further on De Palma’s, and she still looks good (not that that matters ultimately but, hey, she does.)
The next interview probably proves to be the most surprisingly entertaining one. Cameraman Garrett Brown talks about his invention, the Steadicam, and using the equipment in the film for 14-minutes. This is probably one of the more energetic interviews I’ve seen, Brown a little more animated than I was probably expecting. He begins by explaining the Steadicam and shows how it works, and then even shows off smaller versions including one for a standard personal digital camera along with one that’s been made for the Smart Phone/Flip market. He talks a little bit about why he invented it and then talks a little about shooting The Shining with Stanley Kubrick using his invention. From there he moves on to Blow Out explaining he had the understanding he was going to be filming a POV shot for a slasher film similar to Halloween. He was excited though in the end disappointed when he discovered it was actually only a parody opening and the slasher film in question was to be purposely bad. But he still got into it and talks about getting into the role of the killer and how he was basically acting while shooting the opening POV sequence of Blow Out. Great interview and I wish it was a little longer with maybe more of a demonstration of the equipment.
This is followed by a small picture gallery of Louis Goldman Photographs taken on the set during filming. They’re black and white and there are about 24 in total. The presentation is similar to other galleries where you use the arrows on your remote to navigate through the pictures.
And easily the coolest feature on here is Murder a la Mod, De Palma’s first feature, which also happens to briefly appear on a television screen in Blow Out. Running 80-minutes and in black and white it’s an incredibly experimental film with a fairly convoluted plot of sorts that I don’t think I entirely followed, gathering that a young woman is trying to help a man out in getting enough money to divorce his wife which leads to a murder with the film then presenting the event from multiple points of view. Though very early De Palma, it’s stylistically all his and it looks pretty good despite the obviously limited budget. It can be frustrating, though, like many of De Palma’s films where he’s easily more concerned about style over substance and not everyone will enjoy it. In the end I did like it and would probably put it in the area of guilty De Palma pleasures like Raising Cain or The Black Dahlia.
Also, the 1080p transfer looks spectacular, possibly better than the main feature. There’s still some minor blemishes left in the source but it’s sharp and the gray levels are perfect. I’ve never seen the film before but I doubt it’s ever looked this good, at least on video.
The disc then closes with the film’s original theatrical trailer.
The booklet comes with a short essay by Michael Sragow covering the film, De Palma’s career, and critic Pauline Kael’s praise of his work, Blow Out in particular. This is then nicely followed by Kael’s actual article about Blow Out. Criterion then includes a reprint of the magazine that appears in the film which presented the film frames Travolta’s character reuses to recreate the car crash, followed by a collage of the poster art that shows up throughout the film.
Criterion has included some great material, and all of it is worth viewing. I’m a little let down Criterion couldn’t get Travolta, Lithgow, or Franz (who have all worked with De Palma repeatedly) to provide material but they still put a strong effort into this edition.
For one of my favourite De Palma films Criterion delivers a stunning Blu-ray on all fronts: great audio and video transfer with some fantastic supplements. It comes highly recommended.