Rates: * * * 1/2
Why Did I Watch It? Famed thriller that I had been meaning to catch for a long time.
Jack Terry is a sound engineer working for a low rent studio. While collecting audio samples for an upcoming horror film, he inadvertantly records a car accident. Later, he realises he has actually captured a murder; now he has an eyewitness to protect, a psycho to dodge, and your classic deep state conspiracy to uncover.
In a career with many ups and downs, John Travolta, still a big movie star at this stage after ‘Grease’, found one of his best roles as a cocky, likeable everyman, thrown into a turbulent situation. This movie is one of the last reverbations of the political paranoia thrillers popular in the 70s, and Travolta walks the required line; doing what is takes to deliver the morally correct outcome, while keeping his principles intact.
This is also one of director Brian De Palma’s most highly regarded films, and one of his most stylish. His visual trademarks are at their zenith, and there are a number of standout set pieces. The best is the recording of the actual assassination/crash, as Travolta swings his directional microphone around and captures real sounds and clues; all the different audio information overlapping in an intriguing collage, that it will take the rest of the movie to decode. This is mirrored in a great scene where Travolta realises his enemies have erased his audio catalogue; as he spins round his tech room, turning on all his equipment, and playing random tapes, the mechanical sounds they spew out are undeniably unsettling, and convey how he has lost control of the situation.
But the plot doesn’t bear much examination. Several times the characters make wildly illogical choices – why don’t they just ring the TV journalist back? – and the non-Travolta characters are thinly sketched. Nancy Allen, a good actor in the right role, has a blandly monotonous part, which does highlight that this director doesn’t take much interest in his female characters. John Lithgow is excellent as the terminator-esque killer, but his plan to misdirect the police from the key women he murders, by ALSO killing random women, smacks of gratuity. I mean, these deaths are grizzly, and he does not feel the need to coverup the men he kills, in the same way.
Still, for De Palma fans, this is a fave. Among their number, Pauline Kael, whose favourable review in the New Yorker suggests she thought that he was trying to show how he had advanced as a director. The film opens with a fun misdirect: a scene from a cheesy slasher that Travolta is working on. This reappears at the end, as Travolta now splices real audio of Allen being killed, into the same movie, commenting: ‘that’s a better scream’. While he is broken up about it, De Palma’s better scream is this movie; a deeper, more fully realised, version of what he had produced before.
And while I found it uneven, and so can’t give it the rave a lot of reviewers have: it is hard to argue with PK. A stylish and twisty thriller, doubly enjoyable for fans of ‘Blow Up’.