Treated and Released: Blow Out (July 24, 1981)
Brian De Palma stands firmly in the company of the other greats of his generation of filmmakers. His visual flair has aided in some of the most iconic moments in the last half-century of cinema, though he tends to take a shellacking from critics around fifty percent of the time for being a sometimes mercenary director who prioritizes style over substance. I've written previously that De Palma has two kinds of films: the films that manage to capture narrative magic with his visuals (like Carrie, The Untouchables, and Mission: Impossible), and then the flashy trifles that aren't technically impressive enough to justify their plodding pace or excessive run times (like Snake Eyes, The Black Dahlia, and in my opinion, Scarface). He shares with his big influence, Alfred Hitchcock, a fascination with voyeurism and making movies about making movies. And the film we look at today checks all of these big boxes of a De Palma gold star.
Based on Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film Blowup, De Palma's Blow Out is often considered his masterpiece of suspense, kinetic cinematography, and post-Bicentennial political cynicism. While John Travolta was nominated for Best Actor for Saturday Night Fever four years previous, he gives arguably his first nuanced, artful performance as Jack, a film's sound engineer who becomes embroiled in a murky assassination plot of a presidential hopeful. With transparent references to the Chappaquiddick Incident, Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 film The Conversation, and Watergate, the stark night photography of legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond gave the film a moody sense of dread that De Palma has never quite reproduced.
Unfortunately, a moody sense of dread doesn't exactly light up the box office in the middle of summer. Predictably, when released on July 24, 1981, Blow Out faltered against big blockbuster wonders like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, and a re-release of The Empire Strikes Back. Reportedly, word of mouth was getting around that Blow Out featured some overt political commentary and a bleak ending, resulting in it being mostly ignored by moviegoers who wanted something sunnier or more sentimental. It opened eighth at the domestic box office with $3 million, narrowly losing to Disney's The Fox and the Hound in its second week, the Dudley Moore comedy Arthur in its fourth, and even the similarly oddball new release of crime/horror film Wolfen, starring Albert Finney. Naturally, the top four slots were filled out by timeless staples like Tarzan, Indiana Jones, Superman, and...erm, Bill Murray in Stripes. I mean, it was 1981 after all.
For the life of me, I will never understand the thinking behind releasing a tense political thriller in late July, up against the perfect storm of nostalgic genre pictures. The film was produced and distributed by Filmways Pictures, a company more notable for creating rural-themed sitcoms in the 1960s like "Mister Ed," the dueling inverted premises of "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Green Acres," and also "Petticoat Junction." Evidently, their inexperience with the darker material led to what I'd call a major marketing faux pas. Just consider that even with all the bright, sunny adventure films and two of the better comedies of the decade beating it, Filmways decided to put out De Palma's dark murder story opposite another one called The Eye of the Needle. While set during World War II and possessing something of a more romantic and pastoral undertone, this was a similarly moody film that might have tantalized adult moviegoers fed up with tights and fights, and it released the same exact day.
As a result Blow Out limped to the finish line with a total domestic gross of only $12 million off a rather modest reported budget of $18 million. The lesson here? Let me be very bold in my words: dark thrillers are completely wasted in July! You keep that stuff in late autumn or early winter where it belongs. For instance, Tony Scott's technologically keen ode to both Blow Out and The Conversation, 1998's Enemy of the State, opened with an impressive $20 million and grossed a total $111 million domestic, largely because it starred Will Smith at the exact moment he was sailing into the stratosphere, but also because it opened completely unopposed on Nov. 20, opposite The Rugrats Movie (which won the weekend with $27 million). Even a modest financial hit like 2015's Sicario, which expanded to a wide release on Oct. 2 against Ridley Scott's The Martian, did a whole lot better in a number 3 slot with a $12 million weekend. It went on to gross $46 million largely off word of mouth, with very little besides the feel-good space film as competition.
The financial failure was one of the nails in Filmways' coffin, as the company reported a loss of $20 million in as little as a nine-month period of 1981. Within a year, the company had been acquired and shuffled under the Orion Pictures banner, which in and of itself is a subject for another day. Brian De Palma rode the critical praise all the way to his ballsy idea to remake Howard Hawks' bloody mafia overture, Scarface, which despite my not liking it turned out to be a big financial success and a fan favorite. Travolta, in startling contrast, saw his career stagger with the cheesy nonsense of Staying Alive and Two of a Kind, and by the decade's end was plunged into the abyss of talking baby films. His career was not to return until resurrected by none other than Quentin Tarantino, who not coincidentally still lists Blow Out as one of his three favorite films of all time.