Blow Out

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Synopsis

In the enthralling Blow Out, brilliantly crafted by Brian De Palma, John Travolta gives one of his greatest performances, as a film sound-effects man who believes he has accidentally recorded a political assassination. To uncover the truth, he enlists the help of a possible eyewitness to the crime (Nancy Allen), who may be in danger herself. 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.

Picture 9/10

Brian De Palma’s Blow Out receives a new 4K UHD edition from The Criterion Collection, presented here on a dual-layer, BD-66 disc in Dolby Vision with a 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition encode in the aspect ratio of about 2.40:1. The presentation is sourced from a brand-new 4K restoration, not the 2K one Criterion used for their previous Blu-ray and DVD editions. As with that older restoration the 35mm original camera negatives were the source for the base scan.

The 4K disc includes only the feature film and no special features. The supplements can instead be found on the standard dual-layer Blu-ray disc included with this release. This disc also features a 1080p/24hz high-definition version of the film. Sadly, the standard Blu-ray is the exact same disc Criterion used for their 2011 release, meaning it uses the older 2K restoration and not the new one. That disc is covered here. While I still find the image for that release pleasing overall I will add that the encode shows clearer weaknesses now, the grain looking noisier.

It ends up being a bit of a shame Criterion didn’t decide to upgrade the 1080 presentation as well because this new restoration delivers a substantially sharper and clearer looking image in comparison, and even a downscale would still offer some benefit. The clearest improvement in the base presentation can be found in its grain management, which comes out looking more natural and cleaner here in comparison to the dated master of the older Blu-ray. This also helps in pulling out those finer details and textures that then lead to a far more film-like look. The restoration has also cleaned up things wonderfully and leaves next to nothing behind, but then the previous 2K restoration accomplished about the same. What "imperfections" remain are either related to the "trick" shots and split screens that are employed throughout the film (simply due to how they're processed during development) or they may have been left in on purpose, like the handful of very minor imperfections that can be found in the opening film-within-a-film.

But, as with several other 4K titles, the real improvements are found in the application of Dolby Vision and HDR. The film makes great use of shadow and light and I don’t think I’ve ever seen the film’s photography captured as well as it is here. The scene where Travolta’s character is listening back on his tapes in the hotel room, illuminated by a number of light sources that include the light from a red neon sign coming in through a window, is a particular standout. The way the reds blend and disperse into the shadows and across Travolta’s face looks so striking and the whole scene just seems to feature more visible details in the darker areas than before. The nighttime sequence early on where Travolta’s character first captures the accident central to the film’s plot delivers richer blacks and better clarity (I wouldn’t say the old presentation is mushy, it just looks sharper here), and the finale that involves a blackened sky illuminated by fireworks looks bold and spectacular. Brightness levels are also kept at modest levels, nothing coming off too hot or distracting.

It's also worth pointing out that while all of those stand-out sequence certainly look wonderful the benefits of the wider dynamic range aren't limited to those specific scenes; it carries on through the rest of the film as well. The shadows in every sequence just look better, whether it’s in the point-of-view opening or the sequence where Lithgow’s villain is stalking a possible victim in a train station or even a scene where our two protagonists simply sit in a bar and talk. It adds a richer, more dynamic layer to everything and just helps the presentation become the knockout image it is.

(All SDR screen grabs have been taken from the source disc and have been converted to JPG files. They are presented in full resolution and may not properly fit some monitors. While the screen grabs should offer a general idea of quality they should not be used for reference purposes.)

Audio 8/10

As with the old presentation (that, again, is found on the standard Blu-ray included here) the 4K edition comes with DTS-HD MA 2.0 surround soundtrack. It appears the audio has also been redone but, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not particularly good at comparing soundtracks, especially if the improvements end up being subtle. So, while I can’t say if this soundtrack is better I still think it sounds great. The film, of course, is very much reliant on its sound design and as with the old track this one sounds incredibly rich and dynamic, voices sounding clear and effects coming off sharp and crisp. Range can be incredibly wide, and this is most obvious during sequences where that audio tape central to the film is being played back with certain sounds highlighted at different levels. The surrounds are also used nicely, despite the rear two being limited to working in unison, the film’s score and those tapes being mixed creatively between the channels. The best moment, though, still comes down to that one sequence where Travolta is looking for his tapes and De Palma has the camera spin around, the sounds spinning around us as well.

A 5.1 mix could have been pretty impressive, and I wouldn’t have objected to one, but this 2.0 soundtrack manages to work out some impressive wonders.

Extras 8/10

The 4K disc features only the film, no supplements appearing on it. The supplements are instead found on the standard Blu-ray disc that has been included, and since it is (in all intents and purposes) the exact same disc from the 2011 Blu-ray edition, all features have been carried over from that edition. Things start off with, yet again, a 58-minute interview between directors Brian De Palma and Noah Baumbach. I’m still not sure why it was Baumbach specifically who was chosen to interview De Palma instead of any academic or someone from Criterion, yet Baumbach asks all the right questions and leads us through an excellent discussion. While the interview still places its focus on Blow Out out of all of the filmmaker's work, De Palma does also talk generally about the techniques and tricks he’s known for and has deployed across most of his work, like the split diopter and the use of split screens He explains his thinking behind them (to a degree) and covers the technical aspects that come up with them. When the focus comes more to the film he will deconstruct certain sequences in it in a more technical manner that also covers editing, and he of course talks about the actors, the score, and even the clothes of the characters, all before getting into the film’s failure at the box office (which is still a bit of a shock for me). He also talks briefly about Antonioni’s Blow-Up. It’s a nicely rounded discussion that covers both the film and De Palma’s style in a nice, neat package.

Nancy Allen's interview also appears here, running about 25-minutes. She starts off the interview covering Carrie and working with Travolta on that film, noting how easily they worked together which then carried over to Blow Out where the two even able to improvise together. She also mentions her claustrophobia and how that played into her scene in the car underwater before then addressing her performance and some of the criticisms she received because of it. I admit I was one of those ones that wasn’t initially fond of Allen’s performance in the film (after first seeing it on VHS sooooo long ago) but I came around after watching her interview on the previous edition, having realized she was simply adding a naïve innocence to the character. Allen has been really good about doing interviews for her films over the years and this is another excellent one featuring her.

My favorite of the exclusive interviews is probably still cameraman’s Garrett Brown, here to talk about his innovative invention, the Steadicam, and its use during the opening sequence of the film. It’s an energetic interview, Brown first explaining and showing how the device works, which then leads off to him demoing smaller versions that would have been for personal digital cameras and even iPhones. He also covers its history and even talks a little about its use during the filming of The Shining . From there he moves on to Blow Out and explains how he was brought in to come up with a POV sequence in the vein of a slasher like Halloween only to be disappointed when he discovered it was to be done as a parody and would have to be purposely bad. But he still got into it and talks about coming to it from the perspective of an actor since he was would essentially be playing the killer. It’s still a great interview but my only disappointment (still) is that there isn’t more demonstrating of the equipment (he does dawn it and show off how its handled at least).

Also here is a small navigable picture gallery featuring Louis Goldman Photographs taken on the set during filming. They’re black and white and there are about 24 in total. The disc also includes the film’s trailer.

In a great little addition Criterion also includes De Palma’s first feature Murder a la Mod, which also happens to briefly appear in Blow Out. Running 80-minutes and in black-and-white it’s an incredibly experimental film (it's editing can get a little frustrating) featuring a convoluted plot around (I think, anyways, as I still have trouble following it) a young woman who is trying to help a man divorce his wife, only for things to go down a darker path with certain events coming from various points of view. Despite it being his first film it’s stylistically all his and it looks pretty good despite the obviously limited budget.

The 1080p presentation also looks good, the film appearing to have gone through a decent restoration. The encode is admittedly not particularly great but it gets the job done.

This edition also ports over the 2011 release’s booklet in its entirety, featuring Michael Sragow’s essay on the film and the director followed by critic Pauline Kael’s review for Blow Out. And then in a nice little touch the booklet “reprints” the article within the film piecing together the stills from the accident (the one Travolta’s character uses for his animation to recreate the accident to synch with his audio recording) followed by a collage of the film posters that appear in the film.

Still a little disappointed we didn’t get any other interviews with the cast (especially Lithgow) but it does a fine enough job covering the film’s production, and getting De Palma’s first film is still a big bonus (even if one ends up not caring for it).

Closing

Criterion's UHD edition for De Palma's thriller delivers a gorgeous 4K upgrade.

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Directed by: Brian De Palma
Year: 1981
Time: 108 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 562
Licensor: MGM Home Entertainment
Release Date: September 06 2022
MSRP: $49.95
 
4K UHD Blu-ray/Blu-ray
2 Discs | BD-50/UHD-100
2.40:1 ratio
English 2.0 DTS-HD MA Surround
Subtitles: English
Regions A/None
 
 Interview with director Brian De Palma, conducted by filmmaker Noah Baumbach   Interview with actor Nancy Allen   Murder à la Mod, a 1967 feature by De Palma   Interview with cameraman Garrett Brown on the Steadicam shots featured in the film within Blow Out   On-set photos by photographer Louis Goldman   Trailer   A booklet featuring a new essay by critic Michael Sragow and Pauline Kael’s original New Yorker review