Brian DePalma’s ‘Blow Out’ gets the Criterion treatment

From April 27, 2011 — The most important movie event of the past month happened in video stores rather than in theaters — Brian DePalma’s masterpiece “Blow Out” appeared on DVD in a two-disc Criterion Collection edition.

Criterion releases are a tad pricier than the standard issue DVD but they always use the finest prints and feature wonderful extras.

The Criterion catalog is staggering — ranging from French New Wave classics to American indies to above-average mainstream Hollywood fare.

“Blow Out” was a total financial failure when it opened in the summer of 1981 because of its downbeat tone and the fact that it was so unlike DePalma’s hit sex comedy/horror film of the previous summer, “Dressed to Kill.”

Because of the success of “Dressed to Kill,” DePalma was given carte blanche for his next movie and he wisely picked a project that was the culmination of the work he had done in the 1970s — combining the black comedy and politics of films like “Hi, Mom!” and “Greetings” with the more sophisticated satirical horror films, “Carrie” and “The Fury.”

“Blow Out” allowed DePalma to work out his longtime fascination with the investigation surrounding the JFK assassination as well as to explore the limits of the movie and sound technology he had been refining for the past decade.

The film is about a movie soundman (John Travolta), working for a sleazy company that churns out slasher films, who accidentally records the apparent assassination of one of the leading contenders for the presidential nomination. The authorities say the governor’s car went off the road and into a creek — where the candidate drowned — because one of the tires blew out. The soundman has audio proof that the tire was shot out before the fatal accident.

DePalma tips his hat to both “The Conversation” and “Blow Up” in a tale of physical evidence of a crime that proves to be not quite as conclusive as it seems.

“Blow Out” was shot all over DePalma’s native city of Philadelphia and the whole story gains depth and irony by being played out against the build-up to a huge patriotic celebration — Liberty Day — which the writer-director invented for his own purposes.

The climax takes place just as the fireworks start going off and the soundman inadvertently records another murder — one of the most upsetting crimes in modern movies and a major reason why the film turned off a mass audience that was looking for summer fare on the order of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

The failure of “Blow Out” put Travolta’s career in a decade-long tailspin and made it impossible for DePalma to make the two serious films he was planning to do at that time (one of them about the murder of a union leader and the other a rock story loosely based on the life of Jim Morrison).

The box office disaster also derailed the career of the film’s charming and very gifted leading lady Nancy Allen (below).

If you were looking for a moment that clearly marked the shift from the dark-toned, freewheeling 1970s moviemaking era to the bland, audience-pleasing Hollywood of the 1980s, the failure of DePalma’s brilliant and disturbing movie in 1981 could be pinpointed as pivotal in that change.

The Criterion version offers up a stunning new print of the film and a second disc with an hour-long interview with DePalma (conducted by fellow director Noah Baumbach) and a terrific half-hour chat with Nancy Allen. The disc also includes DePalma’s rarely seen 1967 debut film, “Murder a la Mod,” which has some thematic and stylistic links to “Blow Out.”

Joe Meyers