Blow Out
The poster has a squeezed, black-and-white image of John Travolta screaming, with the tagline below reading "Murder has a sound all of its own".
Theatrical release poster
Directed byBrian De Palma
Written byBrian De Palma
Produced byGeorge Litto
CinematographyVilmos Zsigmond
Edited byPaul Hirsch
Music byPino Donaggio
Viscount Associates
Distributed byFilmways Pictures
Release date
  • July 24, 1981 (1981-07-24)
Running time
108 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$18 million[1]
Box office$13.8 million[2]

Blow Out is a 1981 American neo-noir mystery thriller film written and directed by Brian De Palma.[3] The film stars John Travolta as Jack Terry, a movie sound effects technician from Philadelphia who, while recording sounds for a low-budget slasher film, unintentionally captures audio evidence of an assassination involving a presidential hopeful. Nancy Allen stars as Sally Bedina, a young woman involved in the crime. The supporting cast includes John Lithgow and Dennis Franz. The film's tagline in advertisements was, "Murder has a sound all of its own".

Directly based on Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film Blowup, the film replaces the medium of photography with one of audio recording. The concept of Blow Out came to De Palma while he was working on the thriller Dressed to Kill (1980). The film was shot in the late autumn and winter of 1980 in various Philadelphia locations on a relatively substantial budget of $18 million.

Blow Out opened to very little audience interest at the time of release despite receiving a mostly positive critical reception. The lead performances by Travolta and Allen, the direction by De Palma and the visual style were cited as the strongest points of the film. Critics also recognised the stylistic and narrative connection to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, whom De Palma admires, and giallo films.[4][5] Over the years since its initial theatrical release, it has developed status as a cult film[6] and received a home media release by the Criterion Collection,[7] a company which specializes in "important classic and contemporary film," which re-ignited public interest in the film. Quentin Tarantino praises De Palma as the "greatest director of his generation" and cites Blow Out as one of his three favorite films that he would take to a desert island.[8]


While in post-production on the low-budget slasher film Co-ed Frenzy, Philadelphia sound technician Jack Terry is instructed by his producer Sam to obtain a more realistic-sounding scream and better wind effects. While recording potential sound effects at a local park, he sees a car careen off the road and plunge into a nearby creek. The male driver is killed, but Jack manages to rescue a young woman named Sally Bedina and accompanies her to a hospital. There, a detective interviews Jack about the accident, and Jack asks Sally out for a drink. He learns that Governor George McRyan, a presidential hopeful, was driving the car and that Sally was his escort. An associate of McRyan, Lawrence Henry, persuades Jack to conceal her involvement by smuggling her out of the hospital.

Listening to his recorded audio of the accident, Jack distinctly hears a gunshot just before the tire blow-out, suspecting that it was actually an assassination. He learns from a news report that, seemingly coincidentally, a man named Manny Karp filmed the accident with a motion picture camera. When Karp sells stills from his film to a local tabloid, News Today Magazine, Jack splices them together into a crude movie, syncs them with his recorded audio and finds a visible flash and smoke from the fired gun. Though initially reluctant, Sally eventually agrees to help Jack privately investigate the incident. Over a drink, Jack reveals how he left his prior career as part of a government commission to root out police corruption after a wiretap operation he was involved in led to the death of an undercover cop named Freddie Corso.

Unbeknownst to Jack, Sally and Karp, both frequent blackmail co-conspirators, were hired as part of a larger plot against McRyan. A rival candidate had hired a thug named Burke to hook McRyan with Sally posing as a prostitute, take unflattering pictures of the pair, and publish them to expedite McRyan's withdrawal. However, Burke decided to blow out the tire of McRyan's car with a gunshot, thereby causing the accident. After botching the cover-up of Sally by murdering a look-alike, Burke murders two more look-alike women with piano wire and attributes the deaths to a fictional serial killer, "the Liberty Bell Strangler," so that he can cover up the cover-up when she is successfully murdered.

To help Jack investigate McRyan's murder, Sally steals Karp's film, which, when synced to Jack's audio, clearly reveals the gunshot that precipitated the blow-out. Nevertheless, nobody believes Jack's story and a seemingly widespread conspiracy immediately silences his every move. Local talk-show host Frank Donahue asks to interview Jack on air and release his tapes, to which Jack eventually agrees. Burke follows the development by tapping Jack's phone, calls Sally as Donahue, and asks her to meet him at a train station with the tapes. When Sally tells Jack about Donahue's call, he becomes suspicious. He copies the audio tapes, but is unable to copy the film before Sally's meeting.

Shadowing a wired Sally from a distance, Jack is alarmed to see that his supposed contact is actually Burke. Immediately realizing that she is in danger, Jack attempts to warn her, but she and Burke slip out of range and into a parade. Jack manically dashes across the city, attempting to head them off and rescue her, but crashes his Jeep into a department store window and is incapacitated. By the time he awakens in a parked ambulance, Burke has stolen the film from Sally and thrown it into a river. Still listening in on his earpiece, Jack spots Burke attacking her on a rooftop, startles him and ultimately stabs him to death with his own weapon, but shockingly discovers that Sally has already been strangled, cradling her lifeless corpse in his arms.

Burke's death, combined with the loss of the film, ties up the last loose end. Jack's audio tapes alone are ultimately deemed insufficient to prove that a gunshot occurred and the cover-up succeeds. Jack begins replaying the recording of Sally's voice, eventually becoming obsessed with it. Sometime later, he has incorporated her death scream in Co-ed Frenzy. Ecstatic at having found the perfect scream, Sam replays the audio, forcing Jack to cover his ears.



After completing Dressed to Kill, De Palma was considering several projects, including Act of Vengeance (later produced for HBO starring Charles Bronson and Ellen Burstyn), Flashdance, and a script of his own titled Personal Effects.[9] The story outline for the latter was similar to what would become Blow Out, but set in Canada.[9]

According to screenwriter Bill Mesce Jr., he wrote the first draft of the script after winning a competition in Take One magazine hosted by Brian De Palma, but his version ended up being almost completely changed.[10]

De Palma scripted and filmed Blow Out in his home town of Philadelphia.[9] The film's $18 million budget was high for De Palma, and Filmways spent an additional $9 million to market the film.[9] De Palma considered Al Pacino for the role of Jack Terry, but ultimately chose John Travolta,[9] who himself lobbied De Palma to cast Nancy Allen for the role of Sally Bedina (the three had previously worked together on Carrie); De Palma initially hesitated—he was married to Allen at the time, and did not want her to be known for only working in his pictures—but ultimately agreed.[9] In addition to Travolta and Allen, De Palma filled the film's cast and crew with a number of his previous collaborators: Dennis Franz (Dressed to Kill, The Fury); John Lithgow (Obsession, Raising Cain in later years); cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Obsession); editor Paul Hirsch (Hi, Mom!, Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Obsession, Carrie, The Fury); and composer Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Home Movies, Dressed to Kill).

Seventy percent of the film was shot at night. "Basically I just shot Blow Out straight", replied cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, "... By not diffusing and not flashing as much ... That doesn't mean I necessarily like that look but I think it was good for the picture. You see, I like a softer look, a more diffused look."[11] During the editing process, two reels of footage from the Liberty Parade sequence were stolen and never recovered. The scenes were reshot with insurance money at a cost of $750,000.[9] Because Zsigmond was no longer available, László Kovács lensed the reshot sequences.[12]

Themes and allusions

Thematically, Blow Out almost "exclusively concern[s] the mechanics of movie making" with a "total, complete and utter preoccupation with film itself as a medium in which ... style really is content."[13] In numerous scenes, the film depicts the interaction of sound and images, the manner in which the two are joined together, and methods in which they are re-edited, remixed, and rearranged to reveal new truths or the lack of any objective truth.[9] The film uses several of De Palma's trademark techniques: split screen, the split diopter lens, and the elaborate tracking shot.[14]

As with several other De Palma films, Blow Out explores the power of guilt; both Jack and Sally are motivated to help right their past wrongs, both with tragic consequences.[9] De Palma also revisits the theme of voyeurism, a recurring theme in much of his previous work (ex:, Hi, Mom!, Sisters, and Dressed to Kill).[9] Jack exhibits elements of a peeping tom, but one who works with sound instead of image.[9]

Blow Out incorporates multiple allusions both to other films and to historical events. Its protagonist's obsessive reconstruction of a sound recording to uncover a possible murder recalls both Michelangelo Antonioni's film Blowup[15] and Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation.[16] The film alludes to elements of the Watergate scandal and the JFK assassination.[15] The film also recalls elements of the Chappaquiddick incident,[13][15] although De Palma intentionally tried to downplay the similarities.[9] The film intentionally references the Zapruder film as comparable to the footage shot of the accident.

De Palma also explicitly references two of his previous projects. At one point in the film, Dennis Franz watches De Palma's film Murder a la Mod on television. Originally, the character was to watch Coppola's Dementia 13, but Roger Corman demanded too much for the rights.[9] A flashback where Travolta recalls an incident where his work got a police informant killed was also taken from an abandoned project, Prince of the City, which was ultimately directed by Sidney Lumet.[9]

Reception and legacy

Blow Out opened on July 24, 1981, to positive reviews from critics,[9] including several that were ecstatic. In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael gave the film one of her few unconditional raves:[17]

De Palma has sprung to the place that Robert Altman achieved with films such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville and that Francis Ford Coppola reached with The Godfather films—that is, to the place where genre is transcended and what we're moved by is an artist's vision ... it's a great movie. Travolta and Allen are radiant performers.[18]

Roger Ebert's four-star review in the Chicago Sun-Times noted that Blow Out "is inhabited by a real cinematic intelligence. The audience isn't condescended to ... we share the excitement of figuring out how things develop and unfold, when so often the movies only need us as passive witnesses."[15] Both Ebert and fellow critic Gene Siskel recommended it on its original run[19] (and with the former putting it as part of his list of their "Buried Treasures" in a 1986 episode of At the Movies).[20] Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a rating of 89% based on 61 reviews, with an average grade of 7.90/10. The critical consensus reads, "With a story inspired by Antonioni's Blowup and a style informed by the high-gloss suspense of Hitchcock, De Palma's Blow Out is raw, politically informed, and littered with film references".[21]

Despite positive reviews, the film floundered at the box office, due to negative word of mouth about its bleak ending.[9] Blow Out made $13,747,234 (or $39 million in 2023) at the box office.[22][a 1] It was considered a disappointment, as Filmways had publicly claimed the film would make $60–80 million.[2] Rentals generated $8 million.[23]

However, the public reputation of Blow Out has grown considerably in the years following its release.[24] As a "movie about making movies", it has earned a natural audience with subsequent generations of cineastes.[25] In particular, Quentin Tarantino has consistently praised the movie,[26] listing it alongside Rio Bravo and Taxi Driver as one of his three favorite films.[27] In homage, Tarantino used the music cue "Sally and Jack" from the score by Pino Donaggio score within his own film Death Proof, the second half of the double release Grindhouse. Noel Murray and Scott Tobias of The A.V. Club put Blow Out at #1 of their list of De Palma's best films ("The Essentials"), describing it as

The quintessential De Palma film, this study of a movie craftsman investigating a political cover-up marries suspense, sick humor, sexuality, and leftist cynicism into an endlessly reflective study of art imitating life imitating art.[28]

In April 2011, the film became a part of the Criterion Collection with a DVD and Blu-ray release.[7] Special features include new interviews with Brian De Palma and Nancy Allen.[14] The Criterion release also includes De Palma's first feature-length film Murder a la Mod.[14]

In 2023, Time selected Blow Out as part of their list 100 Best Movies of the Past 10 Decades, praising it as "a film filled with mistrust, one where the ghosts of Chappaquiddick and the Zapruder film lurk in the corners."[29]


Award Category Subject Result Ref.
National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Cinematography Vilmos Zsigmond Nominated [30]
Satellite Awards Best Classic DVD Nominated [31]

See also


  1. ^ According to Bouzerau's book, Blow Out returned approximately $8 million at the box office.[9]


  1. ^ "Filmways Board Elects Armstrong President, Chief Operating Officer". Wall Street Journal. August 18, 1981. p. 38.
  2. ^ a b Boyer, Peter J. (August 6, 1981). "FILM CLIPS: Sigalert on 'Honktonk Freeway'". Los Angeles Times. p. h1.
  3. ^ "Blow Out". Turner Classic Movie Database. Retrieved February 25, 2016.
  4. ^ Lambie, Ryan (July 4, 2016). "Blow Out, and Why Cinema Needs Shock Endings". Den of Geek. London. Retrieved August 20, 2019.
  5. ^ "Blow Out (Movie Review)". Bloody Good Horror. November 5, 2015. Retrieved August 20, 2019.
  6. ^ Muir, John Kenneth (August 21, 2009). "CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Blow Out (1981)". Reflections on Film and Television.
  7. ^ a b "Blow Out (1981)". Criterion Collection. Retrieved September 1, 2023.
  8. ^ Kench, Sam (June 13, 2021). "Quentin Tarantino's Favorite Movies of All Time — 20 Cinematic Gems". StudioBinder. Retrieved March 7, 2023.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Bouzereau, Laurent (1988). The De Palma Cut: The Films of America's Most Controversial Director. New York: Dembner Books. ISBN 0-942637-04-6.
  10. ^ Blow Out – The First Screenplay Contest by Will Mesce
  11. ^ Salvato, Larry; Schaefer, Dennis (1984). Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers. London, England: University of California Press. p. 333. ISBN 0-520-05336-2.
  12. ^ "László Kovács". The Internet Encyclopedia of Cinematographers. Retrieved March 13, 2009.
  13. ^ a b Canby, Vincent (July 24, 1981). "Travolta Stars in DePalma's 'Blow Out'". The New York Times. Retrieved May 3, 2012.
  14. ^ a b c Laviola, Franklin (June 7, 2011). "Blow Out: Witness to a Scream!". Frontier Psychiatrist. Archived from the original on June 12, 2011. Retrieved June 7, 2011.
  15. ^ a b c d Ebert, Roger (January 1, 1981). "Blow Out". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved May 3, 2012.
  16. ^ Koresky, Michael (Fall 2006). "Sound and Fury: Michael Koresky on Blow Out". Reverse Shot. Retrieved March 13, 2009.
  17. ^ Edelstein, David (September 7, 2001). "The Best Lover a Movie Could Have". Slate. Retrieved March 13, 2009.
  18. ^ Kael, Pauline (August 1981). "The Perfect Scream". The New Yorker. Reprinted in Kael, Pauline (1984). Taking It All In. New York: Henry Holt & Co. ISBN 0-03-069362-4.
  19. ^ "Arthur, Blow Out, Endless Love, Zorro the Gay Blade". Sneak Previews. Season 4. Episode 38. July 23, 1981. PBS.
  20. ^ "Buried Treasures, 1986". At the Movies. Buena Vista Television.
  21. ^ "Blow Out". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved June 4, 2024.
  22. ^ "Blow Out". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved April 20, 2012.
  23. ^ Donahue, Suzanne Mary (1987). American Film Distribution: the Changing Marketplace. UMI Research Press. p. 292. ISBN 978-0835717762. Please note figures are for rentals in US and Canada
  24. ^ Schrodt, Paul (August 26, 2006). "Blow Out". Slant Magazine. Archived from the original on January 13, 2009. Retrieved March 13, 2009.
  25. ^ Frazer, Bryant. "Blow Out". Deep Focus. Archived from the original on July 7, 2009. Retrieved March 13, 2009.
  26. ^ Quentin Tarantino (speaker).quentinscorsese.mp4. February 7, 2010. Retrieved April 20, 2012 – via YouTube.
  27. ^ Charlie Rose (Host) (October 14, 1994). An Interview with Quentin Tarantino (The Charlie Rose Show). New York: PBS. Archived from the original on January 25, 2012. Retrieved April 20, 2012.
  28. ^ Murray, Noel; Tobias, Scott (March 10, 2011). "Dive into the virtuosic thrillers of Brian De Palma". The A.V. Club. Retrieved April 12, 2012.
  29. ^ "Blow Out (1981) 100 Best Movies of the Past 10 Decades". Time. July 26, 2023.
  30. ^ Maslin, Janet (January 5, 1982). "'Atlantic City' Wins Critics' Prizes". The New York Times. Retrieved September 1, 2023.
  31. ^ "2011 Satellite Awards". International Press Academy. Retrieved September 1, 2023.