Paranoia, Failure, and Female Representation: Brian De Palma’s Blow Out

|Penny Folger|

Jack, a young light-skinned man with dark hair, and Sally, a young woman with blonde curly hair, are standing on a train starting platform facing each other, with side characters and trains in the background.
Jack and Sally surveilling and being surveilled in De Palma’s hometown of Philadelphia.

Blow Out plays at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, February 4th, through Tuesday, February 6th. Visit for tickets and more information.

“There was no bigger disaster than Blow Out,”1 reminisces director Brian De Palma on the reception his film received when it was originally released in 1981. It’s a film that, 43 years later, is held in much higher esteem, even cited by Quentin Tarantino as one of his three favorite films he would take to a desert island (the other two were Taxi Driver and Rio Bravo).

Nancy Allen, who plays Sally, the film’s female lead, cited one reason for the film’s initial failure. “That film never should have been a summer movie. The studio wanted to turn it into a popcorn movie because John [Travolta] was in it.”2 The mere inclusion of Travolta, who had become a huge star after Grease and Saturday Night Fever, had already quadrupled the film’s budget.

But it was a different role than Travolta was used to playing, in a different kind of movie. Blow Out opens from a stalker’s perspective. We as the audience walk along the outside of a building, peering into windows, looking in on various scantily clad women doing increasingly ridiculously suggestive things. (It’s the sort of imagery De Palma would later echo in his 1984 film Body Double.)

This sequence is so over the top, it reads like a parody, not only of the genre but of De Palma’s own reputation for at times being exploitative and violent towards his female characters, something that has led to protests by feminists on occasion. It turns out it’s merely a film within a film: the playback of a schlocky B-movie horror film Jack, played by John Travolta, is working on. 

De Palma acknowledges the scene’s humorous intentions. “When we shot that we were laughing, every take.”3

It’s a funny send-up once you view it through this lens, but by 1987 De Palma seemed sensitive about the criticisms he received for his treatment of women in his films and the limitations appeasing them might impose. He explains, “Women in peril are inherently more dramatic than men in peril, because they’re more vulnerable. It’s just a convention of the genre. But now if you put a woman in peril, you’re into a political issue of violence against women, when you’re just thinking about making an effective horror movie. I think it’s unfair. If a man gets killed, does that make it any better or morally redeemable?”4

Women in peril is definitely one element of this film, one which we’ll touch upon later, but it had larger influencesDe Palma’s early obsession with the JFK assassination, the Zapruder film, Chappaquiddick, and of course Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation also has a correlation, creating a trilogy of movies with themes of surveillance and obsession as characters stumble over crimes they’ve often unwittingly recorded. All three contain the same creepiness: when technology accidentally catches something diabolical. There is a grainy haunting quality to finding traces of a murder once removed, a murder that pops up unexpectedly while one is recording reality.

Split diopter shot of darkness with John Travolta (as soundman Jack Terry) deep in the background on the left, wearing headphones and dressed in a tan coat, holding out a pencil microphone into the vastness. On the right is an extreme close-up of a Great Horned Owl, only one side of its face illuminated — in particular, its large yellow eye.
Travolta’s soundman recording sound in the field. Will he catch a murder in addition to an owl?

In Blow Up, a full hour passes before its protagonist begins uncovering a murder he may have accidentally captured while photographing strangers in a park. In Blow Out, Travolta is a soundman recording sound effects out in the field. Because he is directly involved in the aftermath of the crime he’s stumbled upon—and maybe also because this is an American film—his character’s technological uncovering happens in half the time of its European predecessor. Was Antonioni being “arty” in not getting to “the point” until an hour into his hour and 51-minute film? Did De Palma just care more about the themes of surveillance and paranoia that seem to color the whole of Blow Out? 

Dating as far back as childhood, De Palma was no stranger to these themes. While growing up in Philadelphia he once ran surveillance on his own father, in order to catch him in the act of cheating on his mother. Said De Palma on staking out his father’s office, “I took photographs of him. I could see a woman going in and out.”5  He finally threatened his father with a knife one day, searching his office which was just down the street from the family’s home, for the mistress in question. Admits De Palma, “I finally found her in a closet on the third floor.”6

One has the impression such experiences may have shaped his later career. 

A back shot of Sally, wearing a puffy white jacket, high boots, and red-blue leggings, as she is walking through a crowded indoor marketplace.
De Palma follows women and asks the viewer to do the same.

If nothing else, De Palma is a virtuoso of innovative camera movement. His camera functions at times here like its own surveillance system. The Steadicam, relatively new at the time and run by its inventor Garrett Brown for the film’s aforementioned opening sequence, later follows a woman from behind through a Philadelphia marketplace. Again we as the audience are the predator, or the young boy tracking his father’s mistress. 

There is wiretapping and De Palma shoots down into the apartments or workspaces of his central characters from above, or up through windows as though they are being spied upon from down on the street. When the camera isn’t directly stalking characters through the eyes of potential perpetrators, it raises the question: isn’t all film ultimately voyeurism? Isn’t watching people in their apartments, following the lives of people who can’t see us by nature a voyeuristic act? 

A birds-eye shot of a room filled with sound equipment, with tape recorders, players, cables, and cases of tape scattered on all surfaces.
De Palma spying from above.

The woman we are specifically following in this film (other than a few peripheral doppelgängers) is Sally. Sally is like a rag doll. Or as famed film critic Pauline Kael puts it, “She looks like a dumb-bunny piece of fluff.”7 Eerily, after describing her this way, I discovered this image was exactly what Allen had been channeling for the character. Said Allen, “I had a visual of her as a little rag doll.”8

Sally also has a baby doll way of talking that seems put on for the character. After her first scene, one of the film’s producers hilariously asked Allen, “Are you using that voice through the whole picture or just for this scene?”9 An editor for the Detroit News commented, “It takes you a full minute to recover every time she opens her mouth.”10

Allen plays the kind of woman you saw more frequently in the entertainment of the 1980s. Silent, exploited, maybe walking out in a skimpy outfit in a bit on Johnny Carson, there for no other reason than for the audience to whistle, at best providing comic relief with “dumb” jokes at her expense before walking off again. The “dumb blonde” stereotype, images of Loni Anderson on WKRP in Cincinnati or of David Lee Roth singing “California Girls” on a beach surrounded by women in bikinis. It was a time when the mainstream culture seemed to be grappling with the idea of women, particularly attractive women of a certain type, as people. Women of a certain era were commodified for their sex appeal and not so much their voices. 

Were the women asked to play these parts actually like this, or was this a stereotype that was being perpetuated in media of a bygone era? My money is on the latter. 

The Marilyn-y little girl voice of Sally suggests she was also made in this mold. In this instance she’s a woman who’s paid to use her sexuality to catch cheating men in the act, because life has seemingly offered her little else in the way of options. As she puts it, “I sure as hell can’t type so it doesn’t leave a hell of a lot, you know?” 

That options were limited for women of previous eras is something that in modern life we may have also forgotten. 

Allen, in thinking about her character’s childlike voice tried to channel things like Giulietta Masina’s performance in La Strada, someone who was, “not so bright, well-intentioned.” As she explained, “People who are really resistant to growing up, keep their childlike quality. It works for them to a point. I mean obviously when you get older it’s a little bit… unappealing.”11

De Palma, to whom Allen was married at the time, cast his wife in this role, though having previously collaborated in Carrie and Dressed to Kill, they hadn’t planned to work together again so soon: it was Travolta who insisted upon it. Do Sally’s gummy-headed “rag doll” qualities just make her more of a target? Could these “women in peril” themes be linked with De Palma’s attempts as a youth to “save” his own mother, whom he was reportedly very close to? Ultimately he couldn’t. He found the mistress’s hiding place, but this didn’t stop his father’s infidelities. Is the sacrifice of women in his films that pop up playing out his own childhood feelings of helplessness as their protectors? 

Pauline Kael said of Blow Out, “He [DePalma] locates the fantasy material inside the characters’ heads.”12 Maybe the characters in their heads want a fantasy story where corruption doesn’t rule, but instead are faced with a grim reality—much like a young De Palma coming to terms with his father’s infidelities and being forced to grow up. 

Says De Palma, “It’s just the way I see things. If I have ideas, I have them in my head and I try to get them on film. They obviously disturb a lot of people.”13

In this movie he pulls you along with a false hope that things are going to work out and truth will prevail but as De Palma puts it, “Even if they could figure out who was on the grassy knoll, no one would care anymore.”14 It’s a bleak view, and a bleak yet visually stunning movie in the end, which explains its chilly reception in 1981. 

Remembers De Palma, “It was great until we had the first screening for the executives and I thought they were all going to die. You’ve never heard such a silence after that screening.”15

  1. Baumbach, Noah and Jake Paltrow, directors. De Palma. Empire Ward Pictures, 2015. ↩︎
  2. Allen, Nancy. “Episode 140: Blow Out.” The Projection Booth (November 12, 2013). ↩︎
  3. De Palma, Brian. “Interview by Noah Baumbach.” The Criterion Collection, 2011. ↩︎
  4. Knapp, Lawrence. Brian De Palma Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2003. ↩︎
  5. Baumbach, Noah and Jake Paltrow. ↩︎
  6. Baumbach, Noah and Jake Paltrow. ↩︎
  7. Kael, Pauline. ““Blow Out: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Gadgeteer.” New Yorker (July 27, 1981). ↩︎
  8. Allen, Nancy. ↩︎
  9. Allen, Nancy. ↩︎
  10. Allen, Nancy. ↩︎
  11. Allen, Nancy. ↩︎
  12. Kael, Pauline. ↩︎
  13. De Palma, Brian. “Interview by David Poland.” DP/30: The Oral History Of Hollywood (September 2012). ↩︎
  14. Baumbach, Noah and Jake Paltrow. ↩︎
  15. De Palma, Brian. “Film Society Free Talks.” Film at Lincoln Center (June 15, 2016). NY, NY. ↩︎

Edited by Finn Odum

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