Brian De Palma has always explored the ear-piercing effects of American violence on the decibel meter, never more overtly than in 1981’s Blow Out, which has received a spiffed-up 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray edition from the vaunted Criterion Collection.
Digital files might seem more malleable and easily manipulated than the analog tape of old. Truth is, those processes just take less time. The reliability of audiovisual information presented to us didn’t arrive with automation, it just took less time and meticulous craftsmanship. Part of what makes Blow Out so engrossing, and devastating, is the time spent on the process practiced by sound man Jack Terry (John Travolta) — ostensibly to find the perfect scream for his latest low-budget horror job but also to acquire sounds from the natural world. He’s out gathering footsteps and frog warbles one night in Philadelphia when he witnesses a car barrel off a bridge into the water. He instinctively dives in and saves a trapped woman named Sally (Nancy Allen).
He soon learns that the male corpse that floated before his face was the presumptive next President of the United States. And as Jack digs deeper into the sonic side of what he saw, he suspects the accident was premeditated and that he and Sally are in deeper danger. It is, of course, an infusion of American political will and violent inevitability into Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, all of which builds up to one of the greatest sustained-tension finales in De Palma’s storied career — a fusion of on-location chaos, symbolic volume and photographic-process mastery.
Much as was done with the 4K remaster of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the deep reds on display in Blow Out practically crawl off the screen. All that definition and delineation of color also contrasts the institutional white, beige and blues at the beginning of the film, amplifies the film’s feeling of artifice where it’s most required, and renders cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography of late-20th-century Philadelphia all the more vividly scuzzy. This is an excellent remaster, with a DTS-HD MA 2.0 sound field that executes the stereo mix quite well. Folks who have invested in the equipment might bemoan the lack of a new Atmos mix, especially for a film about sound, but this fidelity to the era’s source is fantastic and more than appropriate.
The special features are ported over from Criterion’s previous Blu-ray edition of Blow Out and include filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s interview with De Palma, an interview with Allen, an interview with Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown about the shots featured in Blow Out’s film within a film, on-set photographs by Louis Goldman, an essay from critic Michael Sragow, Pauline Kael’s original review of the film for The New Yorker, and Murder à la Mod, a 1967 feature by De Palma that also factors into a scene in Blow Out. For those who didn’t pick up Criterion’s Blu-ray edition, this is a must-have, and the transfer is so stunning that, for those with proper HDR setups, the 4K upgrade is also worthwhile.