John Travolta in Blow Out.
Filmways Pictures/Everett Collection

Brian De Palma came of age working in the New Hollywood of the 1970s, alongside peers (and friends) like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola. Yet his films, though often admired, weren’t treated as great feats of artistry, as theirs were. History, shifted by the enthusiasm of younger movie lovers, has changed that in the past few years—but no matter when or how you’ve found your way to it, Blow Out has always been great. John Travolta’s Jack is a sound guy, unambitious and stuck working on B movies, who’s collecting wind noises out in the field one night when he sees a car swerve off a bridge and into a creek. He dives in after it and rescues the woman trapped inside, Nancy Allen’s Sally, a makeup artist and sometime call girl who, it turns out, was consorting with the governor—he was at the wheel when the crash occurred. The governor’s associates rush to cover up Sally’s involvement; meanwhile, Jack begins to suspect that the crash wasn’t accidental. He listens carefully to the recording he collected that evening and clearly hears a gunshot—but the closer he gets to the truth, the more Sally is endangered, and his efforts to protect her backfire. Blow Out is a film filled with mistrust, one where the ghosts of Chappaquiddick and the Zapruder film lurk in the corners. No one, least of all those in positions of power, can be trusted. (The picture is set against a fictional, and garish, celebration of the Liberty Bell, as if to underscore how far the country has strayed from its original, not-yet-cracked ideals.) Allen and Travolta are wonderful here: Allen’s Sally, naïve but not dumb, fills the movie with light—her description of “the no makeup look” is a marvel of airhead timing. But it’s Travolta, an actor capable of great vulnerability, who breaks you. The movie’s final scene sends you off feeling that nothing is right with the world. It’s the opposite of numbness; rather, a sense of being much too alive.

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