DUEL IN THE SUN, 1981
Cast: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz, Peter Boyden, Curt May, John Aquino,
A soundman accidentally records the evidence that proves a car "accident" was murder, and consequently finds himself in danger.
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A man stands on a bridge collecting sound effects for a low-budget horror movie. He hears wind, a frog, an owl and then something else in the distance. It sounds like tires screeching. Suddenly, there is a bang, a car’s tire blows out; the car begins to swerve, going straight into the river below. The man dives in and is able to save one of the people in the car, a young girl. The other person in the car, a man, doesn’t make it. Little does he know that the man was a presidential candidate, and the car crash he just witnessed was less of an accident than it seemed.
This is the set up for Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, an updated version of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), a film about a photographer who accidentally uncovers a murder and becomes obsessed with solving it. Here, the hero has been changed from a photographer to a soundman, named Jack Terry, played by John Travolta, and the plot is turned into a political thriller. By changing the occupation of the lead character, De Palma allows the audience to, at least initially question the judgment of the lead character. We hear exactly what he hears and see exactly what he sees, but nothing is entirely clear. Was there really a gunshot right before the blow out? It certainly sounds like something, but how can anyone be really sure what it is? The audience must decide whether to trust Jack or not.
One of the major strengths of Blow Out is its allusions to modern American history, namely the Watergate scandal, the Kennedy assassination and, most startlingly, the incident at Chappaquiddick, where Senator Ted Kennedy ran his car off a bridge, leading to the death of a woman who was in the car with him. In the film, man, named Karp was also on the scene and was able to get the entire accident on film; this is an obvious reference to Abraham Zapruder, and his famous footage of President Kennedy being shot. In Blow Out, the film of the car crash is released in still photographs, leading to a sequence in which Jack carefully cuts out every frame and pieces them together. He then puts his sound to the actual image of the car going into the water. It is an exciting and breathtaking sequence to watch, as Jack, and the audience, finally see what really happened.
After the accident Jack befriends the girl, Sally, played by De Palma’s then wife, Nancy Allen. At first it seems as though Jack is protecting Sally because he feels some responsibility toward her for having saved her life. He soon realizes that she has information he needs, and he is able to convince her that both their lives are now in danger. They team up, not knowing that the man who caused the crash is still out there, attempting to cover his tracks. His name is Burke, and he is played chillingly by John Lithgow as a cold blooded killer. As the film goes on, Jack and Sally become more aware of the impending danger.
One of the few flaws of the film might be that the audience does not see everything from Jack‘s perspective. Because of this, we are not really on the journey with him. His findings can no longer be doubted once the audience gets to see things outside of his point of view, which tell us that he is, in fact, entirely correct about his theory. If the audience was only allowed to see the accident as Jack does, the totality of the plot would be much more ambiguous. As it stands, the film allows us to know more about what really happened than the main characters do. This makes Jack’s inability to convince others that there is more to the story all the more frustrating for us. However, this technique does also help add to the suspense, especially in the final sequences, where we know that Burke is a killer before either Jack or Sally do.
Blow Out is a thriller that heavily incorporates the theme of voyeurism. As Jack is taking sounds for his film, he begins to record a couple nearby. When they notice him, they instantly become uncomfortable and wonder if he is a peeping tom, though Jack continues to record them; in a way, he is a peeping tom, eavesdropping on private conversations and personal lives. Throughout the film, Jack is constantly overhearing conversations and sounds that he simply should not be hearing; specifically, people dying. The most horrific of these sounds is replayed over and over at the end of the film.
Travolta and De Palma had worked together once before, in Carrie (1976). When Blow Out was released, John Travolta was coming off of three major box office successes in a row: Saturday Night Fever (1977), which earned him a Best Actor nomination, Grease (1978), and Urban Cowboy (1980), which had turned him into a major star . Blow Out, despite critical acclaim, was not successful at the box office, and was the beginning of a string of flops for Travolta, which derailed his career until his famous comeback in Pulp Fiction (1994), earning him his second Best Actor nomination.