(Everything I post is to some degree unfinished, but a movie about which so much can be said and so dear to my heart as this one, I will no doubt have more to say about, and so this post might be considered more unfinished than others. An invaluable resource on all things De Palma, which I have already mentioned here is the site De Palma a la Mod; an excellent resource for this specific post was the three hour plus episode devoted to this movie by The Projection Booth podcast, “Episode 140: Blow Out” hosted by Mike White, Rob St. Mary, with guest Jamie Duvall, and featuring interviews with Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz, and producer Fred Caruso. The podcast is frequented quoted in the following and I’m grateful for their diligent and in-depth work. SPOILERS for Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, The Fury, The Black Dahlia, Casualties of War, and The Parallax View. Since this is a fairly in-depth examination of this movie, it is assumed that whoever reads it has already seen Blow Out and requires no summary or description of the plot, and none is given. A version of this post, with the same title bu slightly different layout, is on Medium: “Brian De Palma’s Blow Out: “Good Scream.””)
Something’s Got to Give had portrayed Marilyn as a shipwreck survivor who has been out of the world for years. She was to ask her rescuers, “Who’s President now?” Told it is Kennedy, she would respond, “Which Kennedy?”
— Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Anthony Summers
Where were you when Kennedy got shot?
— Night Moves
That seem’d as swearable reality
As what I wake in now.
Imagination in a sleeping brain
Out of the uncontingent senses draws
Sensations strong as from the real touch;
That we not only laugh aloud, and drench
With tears our pillow; but in the agony
Of some imaginary conflict, fight
And struggle – ev’n as you did; some, ’tis thought,
Under the dreamt-of stroke of death have died.
— Life is a Dream by Pedro Calderón de la Barca
There came Death expertly threading his graceless bicycle through traffic at the intersection of Wilshire and La Brea where, because of street repair, two westbound Wilshire lanes were funneling into one.
Death so swift! Death thumbing his nose at middle-aged horn honkers.
Death laughing, Screw you, buddy! And you.
— Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates
In all the shining circuits you have gone
About this theatre of human woe,
What greater sorrow have you gazed upon
Than down this narrow chink you witness still;
And which, did you yourselves not fore-devise,
You registered for others to fulfil!
— Life is a Dream by Pedro Calderón de la Barca
I face the difficulty that anyone does who writes about one of their great passions, that the insights you have, the details you wish to point out, all an expression of the fervent excitement I have for this movie, these things have already been pointed out, are already well known, and your analysis is ultimately a self-centered demonstration, only of your own devotion, rather than giving off anything of valuable luminescence. I do not think what follows is an entirely well worn path, and I try to avoid the rote or the obvious, but given that this is one of Brian De Palma’s most cherished films among his fans, I no doubt repeat things others have many times before. As always, it carries the value and disadvantage that it is only my view, an idiosyncratic map of a movie that has meant so much to me for many years.
STRONG AS A COBWEB IN THE WIND1
It’s often classed as a conspiracy theory movie, and though this is definitionally correct, it’s also a misrepresentation that might disappoint viewers expecting a creature of this zoological class. The approach of most of this genre of movie is polemical, and the conspiratorial schematic it presents is part of the polemic: such a conspiracy is possible, now. The Parallax View might be the most memorable example of this, attempting to make the implausible plausible, a conspiracy theory without melodrama in music, direction, or characterization, told in the language of social realism; where the assassination of political figures in the United States takes place, a cover-up with the accompanying murder follows, and the very man investigating the conspiracy becomes its patsy, the assassin’s weapon placed in his dead hand. There is the outlining of a plausible schematic, and at the same time the conspiratorial group is invested with powers that verge on the mystic. They are able to travel everywhere, they are near invisible, they can kill whoever they wish, and they are flawless in their actions, never giving themselves away or making a mistake – when they appear to do so in Parallax, they are actually just laying down a trail of breadcrumbs to lead the hero to his doom.
Blow Out inverts this almost immediately; it is not the villains who possess a power that might be considered almost divine, but the hero. Jack Terry goes out into the park to record sounds, and we see him able to hear at vast superhuman distances, the same mechanical gift which gives him entry into the world of the twisting plot that follows. He moves his microphone and picks up what to the viewer’s ears sounds like the leg rubbing clicks of some night insect, yet Jack’s knowledge of sounds is superior to ours, and he already hears something unnatural, mechanical in these insect-like sounds. They are not insect noises at all, but Burke pulling the wire back and forth of his watch, a nervous tic he falls into whenever he waits before pulling one of his acts of subterfuge, and we hear this same sinister noise when he is lying in the car before going into the garage to change the tire, and finally, before killing the prostitute at the train station.
After the sounds of the wire snapping in and out, Jack hears another sound from Burke at extraordinary distance which no one else nearby hears, the crunch of leaves as the man adjusts his position on the ground. The soundman then focuses on the owl, and the two briefly share the sides of the screen, both creatures of superhuman hearing. The owl cocks its head, picking up a sound so faraway it doesn’t even appear on the soundtrack and not even Jack hears it, the senator’s car approaching. The owl then turns its head entirely as the car drives quickly down the road and Terry shifts his attention as well, hearing the squeal of the tires long before the car is anywhere near in view.
The other trope of conspiracy movies, unused in Blow Out, is a hero moving along the nodes of the conspiracy before reaching its nexus, the heart, or one of several hearts of american power. This might be the Parallax corporation in Parallax, the top echelons of the CIA in Three Days of the Condor, the White House, no matter – but we have a sense of the hero navigating through the labyrinth and getting closer and closer to a center of the universe, the truth finally unveiled. By contrast, Blow Out begins on the fringes and stays on the fringes, with Jack’s position remaining essentially static. Jack and Sally are portrayed as being on the edges, of being unimportant people, not the Jim Garrison of JFK, but something like a face in the Dallas crowd and a minor dancer at Jack Ruby’s, through the movie’s compositions. There is Jack, on his listening expedition, the camera moving further and further out, till he is an insignificant point in the landscape.
A similar sequence, after Jack rescues Sally:
Jack is in the hospital, after the rescue, and he is sealed off in rooms while the frenzy erupts outside.
Jack is given a condescending point and summoning finger, as if he were a delinquent child, by a cop on behalf of one of the Philadelphia brahmins:
Jack and Sally meet for a drink as he tries to persuade her from leaving the city, and we have a prolonged establishing shot where the focus is split between them and the men at the bar.
There is the obvious culmination of this, where Sally fights for her life, a figure invisible to the crowd, high above the festive celebration:
That Jack and Sally remain on the edges of the conspiracy is a function and a necessity of the plot, but it also is very much to do with the position of these characters in society itself. They are part of the overly broad, overly general category “working class”, and though the label is overly vague, there is the obvious marker in both characters, which is that neither goes to university and there appears to have been no expectation that they would get a degree, joining one of the coveted professional classes, of doctors, lawyers, engineers, or tenured professors. Jack’s only recourse for acquiring a technical education is through military service – his family does not have the money for university, and Sally is not surprised that this would be his only option. America is both supposedly a classless society while being very much a country with a class hierarchy, and we can see the prevalence of such a hierarchy by the fact that characters from this class – other than cops, firefighters, and soldiers – rarely appear in movies unaccompanied with a polemical theme about their economic status. The movie must be about bettering themselves, about being someone other than themselves, about acquiring a university education – Blow Out, in contrast, is simply about these characters on their own terms. They are not made stupid, crude, or ugly as an expression of their class, they are not seen solely by those outside of their class, but rather, the movie’s perspective is their own. It’s difficult to conceive of Jack Terry having much interest in a university education, not because he’s unintelligent or incurious, but because his interest is so focused, so specialized around sound technology, that he would rightly wonder what a degree in any field would offer him. That Jack Terry fails by the movie’s end is not because of any lack of education or lack of intelligence, but because he sees the unveiling of the conspiracy as a redemption for the failed police sting, and he wants that redemption so badly that he becomes careless. This sin is not made into a problem or issue of any particular class, but a fatal error possible of every member of the audience.
I have written of an assassination plot and its cover-up, at which Jack and Sally are positioned at the very far fringes, and we now reach the final point which makes Blow Out very distinct from other conspiracy thrillers: there is no conspiracy. The events of the movie are not the result of a convergence of shadowy figures and forces, but the result of only one man, and that’s Burke. He has been given the simple assignment of having Manny Karp take photos of Sally and the governor together, and either by accident or on his own maverick initiative, he commits a murder. Everything that follows, the cover-up, the serial killings, the erasing of Jack’s tapes, the death of Sally, is Burke acting on his own, with campaign manager Jack Manners wanting nothing to do with this out of control lunatic he hired for a very simple piece of campaign sabotage.
The conversation between Burke and Jack Matters, campaign manager for the president:
You were supposed to get some pictures of McRyan, not kill him.
I understood the objectives of the operation…I never concurred with them. But I didn’t kill him, it was an accident.
You accidentally shot out the tire of his car!
As you may recall, this was my initial plan as proposed at our meeting of June the 6th.
We rejected that plan, don’t you remember?
Course I do admit I had to exceed the parameters of my authority somewhat, but I always stayed within an acceptable margin of error. After all, the objective was achieved. He was eliminated from the election.
Burke. I don’t know you. I’ve never seen you. Don’t ever call me again.
Just a minute, sir. We’ve got some loose ends. I’ve changed the tire, made it look like a blow out. I’ve erased the sound guy’s tapes, so everybody will think he’s a crackpot. Karp’s disappeared, but I’ll find him. That still leaves the girl. I’ve decided to terminate her, and make it look like one of a series of sex killings in the area. This would completely secure our operation.
The Projection Booth podcast put together an episode, “Episode 140: Blow Out”, full of vital details on the movie in which they touched on the way information on the conspiracy is conveyed, far different from that in other movies of the genre. Mike White is the co-host, along with Rob St. Mary (fragment is at approximately 24:19-26:12 in the recording):
So, it’s an interesting story of who’s watching who and who knows what when. Because that’s the other thing that I find very interesting about this one is the way we’re being handed information, like I was talking about with the television earlier, which kinda comes back a few times. I mean, there’s Manny, we see him on the TV, and that’s when Jack’s buddy comes in, and turns on the television set for him. But this whole idea of when do we know things versus when Jack knows them? Like, Burke putting the tire, the replacement tire, with the car, Nick Ryan’s car. We know that before Jack knows, and Jack is insisting “Check the tire! Check the tire!”, you know. It’s like, okay, we already know that that’s going on, and then we know as well, because we have Burke saying “I’ve erased all of his tapes,” so they’re going to think he’s crazy, we know that before Jack knows, and we get that amazing scene, of Jack going in, and playing all of his tapes, and having everything coming out blank, and that whole camera move, you know, I don’t wanna say three sixty, because that would imply the camera was in one spot and just turning around, cuz that camera is really exploring the space and going around, throughout the entire room, and just the way we run into Jack as you’re going around clockwise, it’s just a remarkable set piece.
This unveils a crucial aspect of Blow Out, but this is only a partial aspect. It is not simply that the audience knows things before Jack learns of them, but that we know things with certainty, that Jack only hypothesizes about – and of which he never gains hard evidence. Only the audience is able to clearly see that there is no conspiracy, that all the malice which takes place is caused by Burke. For Jack, this is all a cloud of unknowing, on which he projects a vast network which doesn’t exist onto this opaque expanse. “Who’s ever in on this thing has a contacts in the police, because they want McRyan to sink without a trace,” Jack tells Sally. “They don’t want to hear about my gunshot.” There is not Burke alone, but a they: “They have erased my tapes, they’ve made you disappear, and next it’s going to be me.” The asymmetry of information between Jack and the audience begins almost immediately after the accident, when Jack dives into the water to save Sally, at the same time the audience clearly sees Manny Karp move away from his hiding place under the bridge and run away, a figure entirely unseen by Jack.
By the end of the movie, he still has no idea whether the attempt to compromise McRyan came from the opposing camp, or McRyan’s own campaign manager, the man who asked that he lie about being at the scene of the accident. Jack’s suspicion is not glib paranoia, but comes from difficult worldly experience. He worked for the King Commission2, where he saw cops take money from gangsters to avoid prosecution, and he saw cops turn on their own when these crimes were revealed. Mackey hates him for his part in this, “I know all about you and your fucking tapes, you put a lot of good cops away”, and Jack must consider the obvious possibility that Mackey is working against him out of vengeance for what he did in the past3. In something like Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, or even All The President’s Men (if we’re unfamiliar with the real-life basis of the last), we learn things at the same pace as the heroes, while in Blow Out we’re given a situation that is entirely its opposite. Jack Terry has a gift of far reaching and discerning hearing which exceeds ours, yet he learns almost nothing more of the plot behind the accident, while we are shown all.
THE DROWNING POOL, THE BAGMAN, THE BURGLARS, ASPIRIN ROULETTE
The approach of Blow Out places an emphasis on the intimate, and the vivid sensual of noise and light, rather than the traveling of a convoluted plot which twists through the nodes of the conspiracy. As already said, this conspiracy has a node of one, Burke – there is no conspiracy – except that which Jack Terry has past basis to imagine. Instead of explorations of the echelons of power, we are with the characters close-up. We are given a lengthy sequence as Jack splices together the photos of the crash accident and syncs the audio with this film where we see his dedication and skill in his work; the well-known scene where Jack discovers the disorienting violation of his audio tapes having been erased, as the camera spins dizzyingly around and we hear the absence in what’s been left, not silence, but a chugging rumble and a whirring siren; the squalid scenes between Manny and Sally where we see the desperation and misery of her life. This is the core of the movie, rather than a murder plot, which, as said, remains largely a mystery to Jack by the film’s end.
I would liken the movie’s relationship to the historical scandal which initiates the plot with Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates, which takes the event of Chappaquiddick and rather than dwell on the specifics of that actual scandal, turns it into a kind of novella of vivid, often fantastic, sensation, where a woman drowns in a senator’s car, only to be revived, and the revival revealed to be an illusion, and again she dies, but no, by some miracle survives, all on an infinite loop, the recurrence of the death and the false promise of survival an unending nightmare. The senator’s tongue down the girl’s throat melts into the choking dark water, then into the suction hose that pumps her stomach in a revival attempt, the hose becoming the senator’s tongue again. The senator is obviously Edward Kennedy, but those wishing for a scathing satire will be disappointed; no mercy is shown by Oates in the portrayal, but her focus is more abstract, creating a fantastic horror world, and portraying the liberalism of the early nineties as a kind of a church in decline, where novices such as the dead woman have lost interest in the tenets of the faith and community good works, preferring idolatry of the church elders like the senator.
A fragment of Black Water, one of the many describing the crash, conveys the hypervivid sensation which takes precedent over plot points or attempts to parallel historical fact:
She heard the single expletive “Hey!” as the car skidded into a guardrail skidding sideways, the right rear coming around as in a demonic amusement ride and her head cracked against the window a red mist flashing across her eyes but she could not draw breath to scream as the momentum of their speed carried them down a brief but steep embankment, an angry staccato tapping against the car as if dried sticks were being broken, still she had not breath to scream as the car plunged into what appeared to be a pit, a pool, stagnant water in the marshland you might think only a few feet deep but black water was churning alive and purposeful on all sides tugging them down, the car sinking on its side, and Kelly was blinded, The Senator fell against her, and their heads knocked and how long it was the two of them struggled together, stunned, desperate, in terror of what was happening out of their control and even their comprehension except to think This can’t be happening, am I going to die like this, how many seconds or minutes before The Senator moaning “Oh God. Oh God” fumbled clawing at the safety belts extricating himself by sheer strength from his seat behind the broken steering wheel and with fanatic strength forcing himself through the door, opening the door against the weight of black water and gravity that door so strangely where it should not have been, overhead, directly over their heads, as if the very earth had tilted insanely on its axis and the sky now invisible was lost in the black muck beneath – how long, in her terror and confusion Kelly Kelleher could not have said.
Because Blow Out’s focus is on the world of its two major characters, the initiating event incidental, the accident itself has the quality of a dream of overlapping scandals, of the Kennedy assassination, Chappaquiddick, and the government cover-up of Watergate. I would argue that the movie’s lack of focus on the conspiracy event, its disinterest in outlining a surrounding labyrinth, leaves us with images, the vast park, the sinking car, the drowning woman, the dead governor, abstracting the accident like Black Water does, and partly disconnects the event from actual history – when it is very much connected to past history, in the characters of Burke, of Manny Karp, of the accident, all of which are taken from the hard details of the intersection of Watergate and Chappaquiddick, and of which I think De Palma was familiar.
Richard Nixon was obsessed with all of the Kennedys, their good looks, their charm, their wealth, their connections to the eastern establishment that he despised, an animus that ran from the brother he ran against and lost, to the last survivor, even after the debacle of Chappaquiddick. This obsession shows up in that other movie which touches on Watergate, All the President’s Men, when Carl Bernstein talks to a secretary who used to work in the White House, about one of the Watergate burglars, E. Howard Hunt:
Did you know…Howard Hunt? Didn’t he work in the office?
Yeah, I knew Howard. He’s a nice person. He’s secretive. He is secretive. But. A decent man.
Do you have any idea…what he did?
Well, the White House said he was doing some investigative work.
What do you say?
He was doing investigative work.
Like what? I’m just asking you.
Well…the scuttlebutt for a while was that he was investigating Kennedy.
White House is real paranoid about Teddy Kennedy. I remember seeing a book about Chappaquiddick on his desk. And he was always getting material out of the White House library, the library of congress, anything he could find.
(the previous dialogue is not from the published script of All the President’s Men, which can be found here, but is a direct transcript from the movie since there are substantial differences between the lines in the movie and that of the script.)
This obsession is also revealed in the Nixon White House tapes, in these moments where the president tells his close advisors that he wants Ted Kennedy’s Secret Service protection to be used for surveillance, in order to gather damaging information which can be used to destroy him in the 1976 presidential campaign:
(Transcripts are taken from Stanley Kutler’s Abuse of Power and the transcript at whitehousetapes.net, Thursday, September 7, 1972 – 4:47pm – 6:15pm. Audio for the first segment is the file rmn_e772_06.mp3 taken from the nixontapes.org audio archive, specific page “Chron 4 Oval Office Conversations: July 1, 1972 – November 1, 1972″, entry OVAL 772-006. Audio for the second segment is the file rmn_e772_15b, also taken from the same site, same page, entry OVAL 772-015b. The tangential issue dealing with the names Schultz and O’Brien deals with George Schultz, then head of the Treasury and Larry O’Brien, head of the Democratic National Committee. The Nixon administration was trying to go after O’Brien through IRS audits.)
The ongoing attempt to find dirt on Ted Kennedy intersected with the Chappaquiddick drowning, which prompted the Nixon White House to send out a private detective to research the area to find any witnesses or dirt they might use to further damage the Massachussetts senator. The man they sent out for the assignment, Tony Ulasewicz, is described by another Watergate burglar, G. Gordon Liddy in his memoir Will. The Caulfield mentioned is Jack Caulfield, another private detective in the pay of the Nixon White House:
We found “Tony,” later identified at Watergate hearings as Anthony Ulasewicz, at Apartment 11-C, 321 East 48th Street, Manhattan. Caulfield had described the place as “a very elaborate pad – beautiful, wait’ll ya see it. My guy Tony’s puttin’ the make on one of the Chappaquiddick broads. The joint’s wired for sound. He gets her in the sack a few times, wins her confidence, and we get the facts.”
When “Tony” opened the door, I couldn’t believe what I saw. First there was “Tony” himself; a big, overweight middle-aged man who in his best day would not exactly rival Redford. Still, Casanova himself was an ugly man, and maybe “Tony” had something only a woman could appreciate. The apartment itself was something else. It was small, so small that the “bedroom” was nothing but a tiny converted alcove with a pitiful, homemade wall erected across its opening and a curtain for a door. The wall, in which he was trying to hide a tape recorder, was covered in the fake brick sold at Montgomery Ward stores in poor neighborhoods to dress up aging kitchens. A white shag rug was on the floor, and the windows were hung with red imitation velvet drapes. The decor was strictly better-grade Juarez whorehouse circa 1951.
I note two things. Jorge Luis Borges praises the magical precision of the phrase “half as old as time,” in a poetic stanza4, as opposed to the more banal and obvious “as old as time,” and this magical precision is there in describing an apartment as “better-grade Juarez whorehouse” as opposed to simply “Juarez whorehouse”. The other, more important point, is that the description of the sleazy Ulasewicz and his tiny, squalid apartment is very reminiscent of a character we are already well familiar with, Manny Karp.
Ulasewicz’s voice, a practical, matter of the fact, guttural well familiar with the ass end of politics, comes across well in a BBC documentary on the Watergate scandal (“Watergate 1/5: Break-in”, “Watergate 2/5: Cover-up”, “Watergate 3/5: Scapegoat”, “Watergate 4/5: Massacre”, “Watergate 5/5: Impeachment”), showing up in “Cover-up”, when the detective is recruited for another assignment, to pay off hush money to the Watergate burglars.
Segment running from approximately 24:24-26:35:
Five days after the break-in, the burglars were brought to court to be released on bail. The president’s men set about organizing their hush money. Richard Nixon’s private lawyer, Herb Kalmbach, got the assignment.
MAURICE STANS (CAMPAIGN FINANCE CHAIRMAN)
Herb Kalmbach was a close personal friend of mine, and I trusted him in every respect. So, when he came to me and said he’d like all the money I could find up to a hundred thousand dollars, I said, “I can’t find a hundred thousand dollars,” but I know where there is some money, can you tell me anything more about it? He said, “I can only tell you it’s a matter of the White House needing some money – related to the campaign.
Kalmbach collected seventy five thousand dollars of Nixon campaign funds. But he had to find someone to deliver it.
I got a call…to come down to Washington. And to meet with Mr. Herbert Kalmbach. I came to the hotel in Washington, D.C., I came up right away…he didn’t have his socks on, and he apologized for that. And I’d been in the army, in the navy, and he apologized for not having his socks on. At any rate, he got into this story, he’d met with John Dean. A park bench across from the White House. Dean said that on the highest authority, it was decided, that Herb Kalmbach would provide funds and that Tony Ulasewicz, the only one they could trust, would distribute said funds, to those who broke into the Watergate building. So now, he has an attaché case, and he’s got seventy five grand in there. The seventy five thousand now, he’s taking it out of the attaché case, and putting it on a bed. Now, seventy five grand, you know, is quite a bit of lettuce. And there was a laundry bag in the closet, one of these, very thin brown paper that you put your laundry in and leave it out by the door. And I plucked all that cabbage, and I put it into the bag, tied it up with the string, maybe twice over, put it under my arm, and said we’ll be in touch. Now, I’ll await your instructions.
Segment running from approximately 40:16-41:43:
Nixon’s re-election machine looked unstoppable. But he knew that if the Watergate burglars started talking, it would be all over. So his campaign funds were used to buy more than just rallies, they bought silence. Howard Hunt and his wife began taking delivery of the hush money to distribute to the burglars.
I’m gonna do these drops at the airport. And I would- Because lockers were always handy. I’d get a locker number, I’d take the key, put the money in the locker, take the key out. And I’d tape it underneath the telephone. Then I would call on another phone, I’d call the person, whatever name we’d use, Mrs. Hunt at that time, one time Mr. Hunt appeared and picked it up, and I’d say the key is taped- Take that key and go to the locker and pick up your drop. And that’s the way we did it. And it worked very well.
If Karp is made in the image of Ulasewicz, then Burke is a replica of the Watergate burglar already mentioned, G. Gordon Liddy. There is a constricted, lunatic fanaticism to Liddy, and a blind worship of force, both of which can be seen in Burke. It is possible that Liddy’s later behavior can be traced to his overwhelming desire to serve in the army, and fight in Korea, the latter hope dashed when he busted his appendix after a bout of drinking followed by a sit-up contest. This failure to serve may have caused him to overcompensate later on, where he invested every aspect of life with the rigor of a Prussian and coiled violence of a Cossack. Liddy would work in the White House, ostensibly as legal counsel to the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP), but really to perform intelligence gathering and sabotage of their democratic opponents. The political aides inside the Nixon White House would brag and brag about the presidential rallies they’d organized, which soon ran on Liddy’s nerves. “Hey, you guys,” he’d ask, “you want to see a real rally?,” after which he took them to one of his favorite movies, Triumph of the Will.
Liddy would present something called GEMSTONE to Nixon’s Attorney General for approval. GEMSTONE was a series of plans to disrupt Democratic rivals and gather information on these rivals through spies and surveillance, each element named after a gem or mineral element. Liddy does a thorough job describing the presentation in Will, and the following are some representative excerpts:
DIAMOND was our counterdemonstration plan. At the time, we still expected the [Republican convention] to be held in San Diego. I repeated my objections to the site, then pointed out that the best technique for dealing with a mob had been worked out years before by the famed Texas Rangers.
I pointed out that we would be dealing with skilled and determined urban guerillas who had been distributing manuals for violent guerilla tactics against the convention, including homemade bombs; that the Sports Arena area would be impossible to hold against a well-led mob attack; and that I proposed to emulate the Texas Rangers by identifying the leaders through intelligence before the attack got under way, kidnap them, drug them, and hold them in Mexico until after the convention was over, then release them unharmed and still wondering what happened.
RUBY concerned the infiltration of spies into the camp of Democratic contenders, then the successful candidate himself. COAL was the program to furnish money clandestinely to Shirley Chisholm of New York to finance her as a contender and force Democratic candidates to fight off a black woman, bound to generate ill-feeling among the black community and, we hoped, cause them difficulty with women.
EMERALD outlined the use of a chase plane to eavesdrop on the Democratic candidate’s aircraft and buses when his entourage used radio telephones.
QUARTZ detailed emulation of the technique used by the Soviet Union for microwave interception of telephone traffic, and I explained in detail the way it was done by the Soviet Embassy.
For use in gathering information at the Democratic National Convention at Miami Beach, Hunt [this is the already mentioned Watergate burglar, E. Howard Hunt] and I had an option to lease a large houseboat moored within line of sight of the Fontainebleau [a hotel in Miami]. This would enable it to be used as a communications center for CRYSTAL – electronic surveillance. It was an opulent barge, with a lush bedroom featuring a large mirror over the big king-sized bed. We’d get our money’s worth from the houseboat. It would double as headquarters for SAPPHIRE because it was from there that our prostitutes were to operate. They were not to operate as hookers but as spoiled, rich, beautiful women who were only too susceptible to men who could brag convincingly of the importance of what they were doing at the convention. The bedroom would be wired for sound, but I disagreed with Hunt’s suggestion that movie cameras be used. That wouldn’t be necessary to get the information, might cost us the women recruited who might object to being filmed in flagrante, and, as I pointed out to Howard, there wasn’t room to install them overhead anyway.
I presented a plan for four black-bag jobs, OPALs I through IV. They were clandestine entries at which microphone surveillances could be placed, as well as TOPAZ: photographs taken of any documents available, including those under lock. As targets I proposed the headquarters of Senator Edmund Muskie’s campaign on K Street, N.W.; that of Senator George McGovern on Capitol Hill; one for the Democratic National Convention at any hotel, because we had access to just about anything we wanted through all the Cuban help employed in the Miami Beach hotels. One entry would be held in reserve for any target of opportunity Mitchell wished to designate as we went along. I looked at him questioningly, but he just kept sucking on his pipe, suggesting none.
The total cost of these operations, Liddy would tell attorney general John Mitchell, was one million dollars.
John Mitchell made much of filling and relighting his pipe and then said, “Gordon, a million dollars is a hell of a lot of money, much more than we had in mind. I’d like you to go back and come up with something more realistic.”
As I restacked the charts, John Mitchell continued, “And Gordon?”
“Burn those charts; do it personally.”
Again, these plans for illegal wiretaps, break-ins, use of prostitutes for surveillance of members of an official political party of the United States were all presented for approval to the highest arbiter of justice in the land, Nixon’s close friend, campaign manager, and attorney general, John Mitchell. In Blow Out, Burke receives his orders from the president’s campaign manager, Jack Manners, with the killing of the governor and the later cover-up all rogue operations which had been presented to the campaign manager, and which he has already rejected. Who does Manners look uncannily like? John Mitchell.
There was another operation that Liddy was involved in, outside of the command structure of John Mitchell, and that dealt with a reporter named Jack Anderson, who’d infuriated the White House by his publication of stories reliant on insider leaks that were devastating to the administration. Liddy is forthright in Will about the plan of action against Anderson, put forth by fellow Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt at a luncheon, also attended by a medical doctor named Edward Gunn. Both Gunn and Hunt were formerly of the CIA.
The purpose of the luncheon, Hunt had explained to me previously, was to take advantage of the expertise of Dr. Gunn in preparing, for the approval of Hunt’s “principal,” a plan to stop columnist Jack Anderson. Even with each other, Hunt and I often, when discussing the most sensitive of matters, used the term my principal rather than identify our superiors. I, at least, had several. Hunt, to my knowledge, had only one: Chuck Colson.
Anderson, Hunt reported, had now gone too far. As the direct result of an Anderson story, a top U.S. intelligence source abroad had been so compromised that, if not already dead, he would be in a matter of days. That was too much. Something had to be done.
I took the position that, in a hypothetical case in which the target had been the direct cause of the identification and execution of one of our agents abroad, halfway measures were not appropriate. How many of our people should we let him kill before we stop him, I asked rhetorically, still not using Anderson’s name. I urged as the logical and just solution that the target be killed. Quickly.
My suggestion was received with immediate acceptance, almost relief, as if they were just waiting for someone else to say for them what was really on their minds.
Liddy would also explain in Will his justification for assassinating a journalist:
There is a point beyond which I will not go, and that is anything my conscience tells me is malum in se (evil in and of itself) or my judgement tells me is irrational. I have no problem with doing something that is malum prohibitum (wrong only because of the existence of a law prohibiting it).
An example of malum in se would be the sexual assault of a child. In every society such a thing would be recognized as wrong. It would require no act of the legislature forbidding it to inform people that it was wrong. An example of malum prohibitum, on the other hand, would be the statute prohibiting driving through a stop sign without coming to a complete halt. Absent such a law, to do so would be a morally indifferent act.
Common sense tells us that minor problems require and justify but minor responses, and only extreme problems require and justify extreme solutions. In the case of killing it is well to remember that the Ten Commandments, translated correctly from the original Aramaic, do not contain the injunction “Thou shalt not kill.” It reads, “Thou shalt not do murder.” Quite another thing. There are circumstances that not only justify killing but require it (when one is charged with the safekeeping of a child, for example, and the only way to prevent its death from another’s attack is to kill that other person). These are all situations that require informed and responsible judgements.
A number of methods of assassination were discussed. There was the possibility of applying LSD to the steering wheel of Anderson’s car, which might trigger a disruption of motor functions, causing Anderson to fatally crash his vehicle. You could play a game called aspirin roulette, where one of Anderson’s aspirins was substituted with a lookalike pill that was a lethal poison. Another suggestion from Liddy: “I submitted that the target should just become a fatal victim of the notorious Washington street-crime rate.” One more was to smash into Anderson’s car, killing him, but making it look like one more traffic accident. Liddy would recall this last approach when he was a guest on “The Howard Stern Show” (this interview is in four parts on youtube, one, two, three, four, and the following is taken from part one, 13:35 to the end of the clip):
If you had killed Jack Anderson, like you proposed to the Nixon Administration, what would you have used? Because you did advocate an assassination.
Yeah. Well, what we decided to do was…we knew the route he came into the office…and it included a traffic circle.
You’re going to shoot him in the circle?
No, you’re not gonna shoot him in the circle. There’s a way you hit the car in a certain way, and it would flip and kill him.
The bullet, when they-
There’s no bullet, there’s a car accident.
You’re hitting the car with a bullet, right?
No. No. You are hitting the car with another car.
This background is brought up to make obvious that the elements of the conspiracy in Blow Out are neither radical nor fantastic, but a very real part of American history, with a few small paths changed. Rather than gather information after Chappaquiddick, imagine if Tony Ulacewicz had been tasked with getting damaging information before it had taken place. Instead of Hunt and Liddy hiring prostitutes for purposes of surveillance as part of the SAPPHIRE section of the GEMSTONE plan, Ulacewicz would bring in a woman with the objective of destroying a candidate. Instead of assassinating a journalist for the greater good of the country, we might imagine Liddy, or a figure like him, believed that the killing of a governor was one of those situations that served a greater and necessary purpose. Rather than kill the man through an ersatz car accident, he would take the suggestion of Robin Quivers, and hit the tire with a bullet. It was a situation that required “informed and responsible judgement,” to use Liddy’s phrase, and perhaps the killing of a senator or a governor fell under the category of malum prohibitum rather than malum in se. Perhaps the killing of three women to cover up the assassination might fall under malum prohibitum as well. If anything, Blow Out is perhaps more conservative in its conspiracy, because we have only the actions of a rogue agent. As we can see in the excerpted section, however, one of the top officials in the White House may well have been behind the initial order to kill Jack Anderson. We now have audio tapes of Nixon personally ordering a break-in at the think tank, the Brookings Institute5. In this movie, we have a single agent acting on his own. In reality, we had a White House that went rogue.
AUDIOPHILIA / PERSONAL EFFECTS / I AM OF BOTH YOUR DIRECTIONS
Blow Out was at first not called Blow Out, but something else entirely, as described in The Projection Booth podcast, fragment going from 46:50 to 48:00:
The title, Blow Out, was not the original title for this film. Personal Effects was the first title for it…which I found to be a very interesting title, really, because you’ve got both the idea of the sound effects and them being your effects, but then the whole idea of personal effects, usually, when you talk about someone passing away, you are given their personal effects. And so it’s just this kind of nice play on words, and him going to Blow Out was definitely much more of a throwback to Blow Up, which I think is a very nice homage that he’s doing with the title, and you’re right, there’s definitely some nods back to Antonionni but…I don’t know, the thing when it comes to Antonionni’s films, at least the few that I’ve seen, it always feels like somebody took his movies and put them in a pot of boiling water, boiled out all the emotions, and then what’s left is what gets projected on screen? Because it just never feels like I care about any of the people in his films, it always feels like a bunch of sleepwalkers going through the motions, whereas with Blow Out, I definitely felt like there was so much emotion, and I really cared for these characters.
There are several associations with the phrase “Personal Effects”, the most obvious that it’s the name of Jack Terry’s sound engineering company, never said aloud, but there in the print on the glass of the door:
Personal effects, as White says, are the possessions you might acquire after someone’s death, which immediately makes one think of Sally, but I find the phrase hints at Sally in another way: Jack works in sound effects, while Sally works in make-up, which might be thought of as personal effects. De Palma’s movies are often extraordinarily succinct, wasting few words on lengthy exposition or backstory. We sense characters visually, through their expressions, their posture, movements, clothes, and their work. Kate of Dressed to Kill is one of the most memorable characters in any of his movies, yet she has almost no dialogue, with Kate made a tangible, memorable presence entirely in her face, as she observes, reacts, is chased, and chases back. The vocations of Jack and Sally are a handy metaphors for aspects of these characters which, in another movie, might be made more explicit.
The sensibility of a conspiracy theorist, or simply someone looking deeply into a particularly obscure world and discerning a pattern, is well captured in the profession of a sound engineer. Jack Terry doesn’t just hear at great distance through his technology, his hearing is extraordinarily acute through years of experience, able to discern small subtleties of sound. “You heard the blow out,” the cop tells Terry of what he heard on the night of the accident. “Yes I heard the blow out, but the first sound I heard was the bang.” Replies the cop: “That’s some kind of an echo.” Jack: “No. Look. I know what an echo sounds like, I’m a sound man, and, the bang was before the blow out.” He insists that the sound is there, though no one else can hear it – when Jack plays back the tape for Sally, she says, “I mean, I heard a noise, maybe it was a gunshot.” Only when she hears the sounds accompanied by Karp’s film is she able to clearly recognize the gunshot. This is very much like the closed off world of someone who might be investigating a historical or political mystery; they insist they perceive a pattern, yet others, not knowing the details of the various minor characters and coincidences of this unilluminated corner of the world cannot say with certainty whether their theory is credible, only seemingly credible, or false. This is also something like what a movie director feels – whatever the setbacks and problems in filming, whatever others say, they see a vision in the screenplay and the footage that others do not, and sometimes these certainties crashes thuddingly to the ground, and other times this mad vision is exhilaratingly right. The viewer has the luxury of certainty, the movie showing us that Burke clearly was behind the governor’s death. This certainty is often expected on the part of the audience, that the hero’s suspicions are always right, that the hero is always correct and righteous in his actions, and this very attitude is upended by the movie’s finale. De Palma is well aware of how easily the audience can fall into unquestioning assent that a movie’s protagonist is always right, and later in his career he uses this to play a rather nasty trick in Mission: Impossible. There, in an early scene, we are shown footage of a senator speaking on TV, who Ethan Hunt will impersonate at the embassy. This speech is played loud enough for the audience to easily make out every word, for us to easily discern its meeting, and this senator is greeted with withering disdain by the television host, and dismissive laughter by our heroes:
We’re using Waltzer?
He’s our guy.
Isn’t he chairing the arms services committee?
Not this week. This week he’s fly fishing, at the Oughterard Slough in County Kildaire with one of our best Irish guides.
He won’t be back anytime soon.
-irrelevant at best, or unconstitutional at worst.
With all due respect, Senator, it sounds as if you want to lead the kind of charge that Frank Church led in the nineteen hundred and seventies.
…and in the process destroyed the intelligence capability of this country.
I wanna know who these people are. And how they’re spending our tax payers’ money. We were living in a democracy, the last time I checked6.
De Palma, I think, is very much a skeptic of the national security state, and he puts what is probably the sanest attitude in this movie, and the one he probably most likely agrees with, in this marginal character who simply wants greater accountability and transparency for an intelligence agency that might well be acting outside of the constitution. This attitude may well have greater resonance in the present time than at the time of the movie’s release, given what we now know. Yet how can this senator possibly be right, if he is some reedy voiced senior, dripping in earnestness and piety, looked on with ridicule by a heroic character played by the biggest movie star in the world and mocked so mercilessly by the host of a TV show? It is perhaps helpful to note, and allows us to return to the subject of Blow Out, that this same TV host is John McLaughlin, an alumnus – like G. Gordon Liddy and John Mitchell – of the Nixon administration, where he was a speechwriter and one of the staunchest defenders of the president, even after Watergate broke7. Yet how could this Nixon devotee possibly be wrong, if a character played by Tom Cruise agrees with him?
There is nothing obviously unsympathetic about Jack Terry, there is no karmic payback in Sally’s death. Jack is more heroic and virtuous than most of us; he worked to end corruption in the Philadelphia police department, and he saves Sally from drowning. Jack is a man who is the audience’s heroic proxy, and his quest for redemption is our quest for redemption as well – we wish him to succeed as it gives us hope that we too might begin again, that we will have second and third chances. There is the expectation of movies that they will affirm our heroic fantasies, and Blow Out gives us a partial affirmation, providing us the concrete proof that Jack is entirely right in his belief in an assassination attempt, and then pulls the rug out from us – Jack fails in his mission because he badly misjudges the situation, and this misjudgement is a result of his quest for redemption by exposing the conspiracy, yet we in the audience wish him on in this reckless mission. We expect the very mechanics of the type of movie we’re watching – a thriller with a charismatic Hollywood star – will save him, that a hero in this context cannot fail. Yet he does.
Sound effects are Jack’s specialty, and make-up is Sally’s. Though we are never told any exact details about the matter, I think it can be inferred that she has suffered great abuse, and had to abide such abuse. We see her with Manny Karp as he paws at her, as she initially resists with little energy, as if she has become conditioned to expect a steady dose of such maltreatment in this life. This might be what allows Jack to act as he does in his worst moments in the movie, sending her back to get the film from Karp, humiliating her and then intimidating her into doing this, knowing that she won’t fight back.
What are you going to do?
What do you mean what am I going to do? What are we going to do?
What do I have to do with this?
Oh, will you cut the shit, Sally. I know what you were doing in that car.
What do you know.
That you and your friend Karp were setting up McRyan to be blackmailed, getting scummy pictures of you and the candidate getting laid after the Liberty Ball, right? What did you do, tell him that running water under a well-lit bridge gets you hot?
Who told you that.
I got a look at your earlier work. Some motel candid camera shots. You got nice tits. Who was paying you to flash them at McRyan?
Nobody wants to know about conspiracy, I don’t get it. Let me tell you something. I know what I heard and what I saw. And I’m not gonna stop until everyone in this fucking country hears and sees the same thing. And you’re gonna help me. Yeah you. You’re gonna find your pal Karp, and you’re gonna get that original film. Because this isn’t any good, I need the original. Because if we don’t get this out and in television for everybody to see, they’re gonna close the book. And any loose ends that happen to be hanging out like you or me, are going to be cut right off. So you got your choice. You can be crazy or dead, either will do.
SALLY (on the verge of tears)
Alright, alright. I’ll try and get the film. Then will you just leave me alone about all of this?
I wish I was the only one you had to worry about.
You know if you’re trying to scare me, you’re doing a good job.
I’m trying to save our asses.
I’ll look after my own ass, thank you.
When Jack tells Sally, “And you’re gonna help me. Yeah you. You’re gonna find your pal Karp, and you’re gonna get that original film,” he gives her the same condescending, commanding pointed finger that he received from the cop, when he was told to change his story:
There is an economic element to this intimidation as well: we see the sizes of their respective places, and Jack’s is clearly bigger, a two storey house. Money determines your importance, and whatever the miseries of his work, he is doing far better than her, has more money, is relatively more important, and this intimidates her as well. The assassination film is his project, and he forces her to do what’s necessary that it be completed. Jack stashes the audio tape away in the ceiling, and the camera takes its perspective, looking down, Jack’s guiding polar star which he makes Sally’s guiding polar star as well. When we shift to the scene at Karp’s, it ends with Manny unconscious, the camera looking down again from the ceiling on the wreckage, the outcome of Jack’s obsession.
(the respective houses of Sally, and then Jack’s)
Sally tells Jack, “I know how to fix a face”, and he asks her in the conversation at the bar, “How about if I broke a nose? How would you deal with a broken nose?”, and she says, “Ah, that’s easy.” You’re reminded that make-up is a useful skill to have to hide bruises, to conceal the personal effects of a man kicking the shit out of you. Sally, of course, knows how to apply make-up so that it doesn’t even look like she’s wearing make-up, and she’s equally able to adopt a pose where one cannot easily tell how much of it is natural girlishness, and how much a survival strategy to forget past hurts and avoid further suffering.
She is a particularly nettlesome character to some viewers, and the discussion on The Projection Booth with regards to her is especially enlightening. This excerpt conveys succinctly the broad range of feelings towards her, as well as what her character embodies, fragment running approximately from 18:54 to 22:49:
Jack saves Sally, pulls her out of the sinking car. We’ve got the governor, who might have been the next president, in the car with them, setting off this whole political intrigue. So, what did you guys think about Nancy Allen as Sally?
ROB ST. MARY
She seems almost child-like. At times. And child-like to a point, for me, is a bit annoying. It’s almost like she’s so oblivious to what’s going on, is so sorta naive, that it’s almost, it’s kinda hard for me to have sympathy for her at times, because I’m like, you are so dumb. You can’t even kinda figure this out. There are parts where she just seems way too ten years younger than she should be, she seems like a girl in her early teens or something, and I don’t know why I got that feeling, but I definitely got it in the early go, and as she progresses, it gets better, like the character gets a little hip to what’s going on, and sorta realizes the implications of what she’s dealing with.
It’s a tough performance to grapple with in many ways, and I think it was a completely brave choice the way she chose to play it. Because you could see her as a complete air-headed bimbo at the movie’s start, with the high voice and the, you think it’s too exaggerated, but I think she starts with a stereotype, and she slowly humanizes it. And I think that her idealism, her kinda wide eyed idealism, is very fitting with the theme of the movie, because she’s the stereotypical hooker with the heart of gold. In her position, she has probably seen a lot of terrible things in life, and yet she maintains that kind of wide-eyed dreamy innocence in some way. While Travolta’s character, he’s grasping at the last straws of his idealism. And this is his, through the course of the movie, this is his one chance to try and make things right. I like the contrast between those two characters and I like that the innocence in her is exaggerated.
Yeah, there’s a telling moment towards the end of the film, I know we’ll eventually get to it, kinda want to throw out this here now: do you guys see her as just being, I know this is going to sound really frickin ponderous, but: do you see her more as a symbol of America’s innocence and, you know, Jack is maybe someone who is post-sixties whereas she is maybe pre-sixties kind of thing? Do you see her as kindof that desire for a simpler, better time and that she kinda lets some of these things, because she has been in these bad places. I know that you said, Jamie. I know that you- you see her caught in one of these candid motel photograph kind of things and yet, she doesn’t seem like she’s that person. She just seems to be kinda oblivious and wants to move on with things, and look for the better way whereas Jack doesn’t, do you see her as that symbol of innocence?
I do think you can very easily see her as that. She’s got her blinders on, to the dangers of the world around her. But she can’t escape them forever. And- I think there’s a reason why she’s killed in front of a big American flag, at the end of the film. I mean-
Oh, I’m sorry. It’s pretty hard to avoid when you’re talking about where that character goes and what she means to the story. You know, her demise. Yeah, I think that’s a beautiful reading, and I love how you used the term countercultural, because De Palma is a countercultural film-maker. He’s always been a political minded film-maker. And I think that both of these characters kinda represent that in some way.
The startling, iconic shot just mentioned is, of course, this one:
Though an outwardly simple character, Sally has several fascinating ambiguities, such as whether she ever worked as a prostitute, how much she was involved in that work, and how she reconciles the frequently rough life of sex work with a kind and trusting disposition. The sections of The Projection Booth when Nancy Allen speaks of her character might be its most insightful moments, as she seemingly acknowledges that Sally worked as a prostitute while also denying it. We sense perhaps the protectiveness actors adopt for their own characters, but perhaps also the way an actor cannot express a detail about their character without also adopting the perspective of the person portrayed: I wear the kind of elegant expensive boots that a prostitute of the time would wear, but I’m not a prostitute since I’ve insisted on forgetting that I was ever such a thing, and so how could I be something that I don’t remember being?
A fragment that runs from 2:15:08 to 2:15:54:
Your character, even though I sense she’s a prostitute, is one of the nicest people in the film.
Well, she’s not exactly a prostitute (laughs) as I said before. She is in her- She is working with this guy, this creepy detective, to expose these horrible cheating men. So, in her mind, she’s really doing a service to other women. Of course, she’s in complete denial of what she’s doing. As I am of her character, because I don’t see her as a prostitute. I see her as a very sweet, well-intentioned, young girl, who was easily manipulated and trusting, of men. So, you know, I can relate to that.
Another fragment, running from approximately 2:28:55 to 2:33:51:
Where did you come up with that voice to do?
The voice came after, I had a visual, sometimes I try, just when you think about a character, and I had this visual of her as a, just a little rag doll, just a little raggedy ann, curly red haired, I don’t know, it kinda floated through me as I was walking around, as I tend to do, just mulling over characters, and I had a visual of her, and Brian wanted me to do a Philadelphia accent, which I had a really hard time with. I just hate accents so much, I was really resistant to doing it. We talked about characters like Giulietta Masina in, god, I’m going blank now- You know, not so bright, well intentioned, kindof character, do you know the movie I’m thinking of? With Giulietta Masina and Anthony Quinn? What is that movie, I know you know what one I’m talking about, I know what one I’m talking about.
Is it La Strada?
YES! Thank you. Brilliant. You win the prize. So, we were talking about that, and I said, what if I just do kindof a New York-ese, not well educated kind of way of talking that, and just- The idea of, I was trying to think, why do women, certainly the women that I know, [goes into higher pitched, babyish voice, which sounds a lot like Sally] You know, this is kind of one of their voice days. [back to normal] And I thought, well, you know what? These are women who are resistant to growing up, keep their child like qualities, it works for them to a point, I mean, obviously, as you get older it’s a little bit unappealing. But- so- Maybe that’s going to justify- Take that idea and apply it to this character. And so, that’s where that came from. I will tell you, I think one of the first things that I shot was the hospital scene. With John. Who was unshaven, and wouldn’t wear make-up, and poor George Litto, who was producing at that time, came to the set, and he said “I’m paying three million dollars to a movie star, and he won’t wear make-up?” And then he looked at me and said, “Are you…you using that voice throughout the whole picture, or just in this scene?” And he just walked away, shaking his head, he didn’t know what to do with either of us. That’s where all of that came from.
Whenever I think of you in the film, I think of your voice, but I also think of that coat, that you wear.
Oh, yes! [laughs] YES. There were many of those. Ann Roth made, six or eight of those, with the fox collar and…yeah yeah yeah, it was a great coat.
It was like crushed velvet?
EXACTLY! Very good. Indeed it was. And I had very expensive boots. Always very expensive boots, because Ann Roth had done Klute, and she’d done a lot of research about hookers and girls like that, and they always had good shoes. Great boots.
But you weren’t a hooker?
Well, THAT’S RIGHT. That’s what I say. [laughs]
I guess the coat helped my perception of that.
She [Ann Roth] had such a great touch of detail, I don’t know if anyone has noticed it, because there’s probably only one scene where it’s visible to the eye, but when I talked to her about the character and I told her my visual concept, and things I was thinking about with her, and the idea, that some day she was going to be a make-up artist, a movie star. I liked the idea that this young girl had an idea about lucky charms, and things like that. So, she put together, I still have it somewhere, it’s a rabbit’s foot, on a thin pink satin ribbon. That I always wore, and it was either under- but I always wore that charm when we were shooting. It was, those little details really make a difference when you have something like that. That’s what’s so great about the collaboration of film, where an actor can work with another actor, and a director, and a costume person, and make-up person, and really great costumes, and wonderful hair and make-up, it really fleshes out a character, and all of a sudden you look at yourself, and you go, yeah, that’s her. That’s it. This is it exactly, and you start to feel it in a big way.
This mixture of ambiguity and simplicity, the kindness, the voice, all make me link this character to an actress now inextricably connected to the Kennedys, and that would be Marilyn Monroe. The accident at the heart of the movie, which might feel like a dreamy conflation of american tragedies, might carry the echo of a lost hypothetical: what if Marilyn Monroe had hooked up with the one Kennedy brother she didn’t, and was there in the car with him at Chappaquiddick? Though I think Allen has a wider range, I can see Monroe’s peculiar genius making her a perfect fit for the part of Sally had Blow Out somehow been made in the 1950s, one of those roles where she would have been great, but which would also provoke the question of whether she was acting, or just playing Marilyn Monroe…or whether she’s always playing Marilyn Monroe. This tragic icon would get paid $50 to be photographed nude by Tom Kelley, who would sell the pictures for $500, which then went into a calendar that made a profit of three quarters of a million dollars; “He says he heard all about our fine divorce work and offers us six grand,” says Manny Karp, explaining the meeting with Burke for the McRyan job. “Six? You told me three,” says Sally. “Yeah, well, three before and three after,” says Karp. Sally: “When were you going to tell me about the three after?” Monroe, we’re told in The Genius and the Goddess, “was a prostitute, in cars on shady side-streets, in return for small amounts of money to buy food,” just as Sally had to do paid sex work to survive; the most striking similarity is that Monroe, despite the very grim circumstances of her life, was able to exhibit a girlish, open-eyed, friendly attitude, and how much of that was affect beneath which the actual Marilyn was enwrapped is an open question. Nunally Johnson, a screenwriter and friend of Monroe would say that she was “generally something of a zombie. Talking to her is like talking to somebody underwater”, and this might be something like the exasperation people have with Sally, where you might ask, what part of you isn’t gauzy cotton candy?8
I don’t think I’ve ever had this complaint with the character, because Sally has always made perfect sense to me, someone who has been very badly hurt over and over again, and has made herself into a strange kind of creature, an unknowable amnesiac submissive, to avoid being hurt again. In her first scene after the drowning, Sally moves about drugged, finally so comatose she has to be pushed onto her bed. In her last scene, she’s dragged about in a tight grip by Burke. Manny gets her in the beds of men for divorce work. Jack pushes her into retrieving the film from Manny. Throughout the movie, she acquiesces to being a device in other plots, culminating in the last, which she finally resists, a victim in a series of killings. We might see in the three characters of Jack, Burke, and Sally, a trinity, with Jack the middle point. Burke is technically adept like Jack, able to tap into and re-wire the phone system much like the title character of Three Days of the Condor, yet he is a sociopath, a man entirely without any sense of the humanity of others. Jack does have this feeling, along with Burke’s precision and focus, yet when his obsession overtakes him, when he forces Sally to retrieve Karp’s film, he loses this empathy. Sally has none of the engineering gifts of these two men, but is far more compassionate, with a far greater sense of the feelings of others, and this makes her guilt ridden, and it compels her to forget, to sometimes act as if some things never took place. “Manny, we got him killed,” she says tearfully to Karp, about governor McRyan’s accident. “Don’t give me any of this conscience shit,” says Karp. “You’re a pig, Manny,” she says, “And I’m a pig too.” Though it’s never said openly, one reason why Sally connects with Jack, feels such sympathy for him, is that they both know what it’s like to be haunted by the past, a death they feel complicit in causing.
One can understand why Allen felt the rabbit’s foot so crucial, because this is a character, whatever her outward circumstances, who somehow remains wide eyed and optimistic. She believes that luck will guide her to a better life, and this is the same magical thinking cure of most Hollywood movies, that we needn’t worry, that things will somehow turn out for the best in the end. The rabbit’s foot will protect Sally’s life, and Jack Terry will somehow prevail, save her, and become a hero by uncovering an American coup, and in another movie we can easily imagine this happy ending. But not this one. The one detail that Allen misremembers is that the rabbit’s foot was not a hidden talisman serving as just a helpful lodestone to the actress visible only in one scene – it is prominently displayed throughout the movie, another example of De Palma effectively using the visual, clothing and props, to convey a character well. Sally is wearing the rabbit’s foot when she dies:
I see Sally as someone like Marilyn Monroe, where we’re no longer sure where the artifice begins and ends, but I also see her as a play on the types we might see in the kind of exploitation movie that’s shown in the opening. Sally would be the squeaky voiced Bimbo, but rather than leave her as the flat expendable type of a low grade horror movie, she’s made into something complicated, a woman of kindness, suffering, and desperation. She’s accompanied by another possible type from the exploitation movie, the nameless hooker played by Deborah Everton, who in another movie would be a woman to be hated, the Bitch or Slut. Though we know almost nothing of this character, the performance makes this character into something other than a flat type as well, a woman who has to put up with lousy, tiresome, nasty work for her pay. She can turn on a charming, luminescent face and turn it off on a dime, which aren’t simply the skillset of a hooker, but the basic necessity of anyone in the service industry, whether you’re a waiter, counter person, barista, or tech support, with the demand that you remain friendly towards the customer putting you on the edge of hating the customer as well. The hooker gives a beaming smile to Burke, then with a quick turn it fades off, the fade out accompanied by the clank of the telephone door. The friendliness is machine like, just as working in the service industry is like an unending lesson in how to be a friendly machine, and you have to be a friendly machine because you have no other choice. “You need the money that bad?,” Jack asks Sally about her extortion work. “C’mon, you know where I work,” she replies. “I get paid to smile my ass off and show the twenty seven colored lipsticks they’re pushing. You know how much I make? Shit is what I make.”
Rather than hating this prostitute for the coldness you need to make it through the day doing certain kinds of work, we empathize with her. Any hatred for this character, who might be the nasty Bitch the audience is supposed to hiss at in another movie, does not emanate from anyone sympathetic who we might connect with, but the lunatic serial killer Burke, who stares after her with cold loathing. We’re briefly given something of this perspective in Blonde, the fictional account of Marilyn Monroe’s life by Joyce Carol Oates, when it enters the mind of the photographer who shoots Monroe’s calendar. “Shooting a girl’s ruined face and her breasts jiggling and her ass and she’s young-looking as a kid stuffed into a woman’s body, innocent like something you’d want to smudge with your thumb just to dirty up.” These women move from exploitation types where their killings would be simply a dramatic musical cue and gore, blood dripping over bare tits, say, to a place where their deaths have a tragic weight, where the audience resists the possibility that Sally might die. The women have a sorrowful end, but the movie does not smudge them with its thumb. After Sally’s death, she is reduced back to something inhuman again, a mere sound effect, an accompaniment for a horror movie’s routine, expected death that means nothing. Her last breath on earth is now a small useful element, like gristle or copper residue, left over from one industrial process that can be re-used in another, in this case the manufacture of low cost nudie slashers. We are given a horror movie where the victims are more substantial than we expect them to be. We get the deaths promised in the film’s mock opening, and at the same time, not what we wanted at all.
As always in De Palma, there is voyeurism. If voyeurism is an activity where we, the observers, are allowed the excitements of sex and violence without cost or involvement, then movies might be thought an ideal expression of this form, the same privilege as in real life, but where the observed activities will play out exactly as we wish – the man or woman will take off their clothes until they’re fully naked, the hero will wreak cruel vengeance, the woman in peril will be saved. All three of these describe vicarious fantasies of De Palma’s movies, and in all three movies, the fantasies are subverted. Dressed to Kill provides us sexual voyeurism, where Nancy Allen’s Liz strips down to her bra and panties, then turns on a lunatic killer by describing her fantasy of submitting to sex at knifepoint. We are then given a near recreation of this same fantasy, with Liz first showering nude when the same lunatic killer enters the house, and then Liz in a state of helpless and abject terror before her throat is cut. The very thrills that turn on the deranged killer are there to turn us on as well. We are given a titillating close-up of an unconscious nurse unzipped of her uniform, the kind of chest bursting outfit only found in exploitation movies and porno, before we shift perspective to see who is peeking on this erotic vision, and we see whose eyes we share, those of the masturbating grotesques of the asylum. The director plays the same trick on us as we gawk at a sapphic pairing in The Black Dahlia before we cut to the voyeur, another crippled grotesque, and, of course, the beginning of Blow Out, where we peek on co-eds in panties, bra, or less, and we are revealed in the mirror as one more deformed, moronic lunatic.
Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill
Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill
Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill
The Fury is about a young man gifted with telekinesis who is programmed to hate the arabs he is told murdered his father, and his perspective becomes so distorted that he lashes out with rage and kills some Saudi sheiks visiting the United States. He is presented to us as a damaged sociopath, but when the movie’s other telekinetic character, who throughout has always been afraid of the destructiveness of her powers, finally unleashes her abilities to annihilate her enemy, it is our catharsis. The images that shape the sociopath of the movie shape us as well9.
Though Sally does sex work, like Liz in Dressed to Kill, at no point is the idea of sexual fantasy played with. Though Sally is a beautiful woman, the movie’s perspective is distinctly unerotic. Here, I think one might mention one last trait of Sally which she shares with Marilyn Monroe, and this is why Sally is the center of a fantasy, but not a sexual one. What recurs in every account and biography of Monroe’s life was her extraordinary vulnerability, a reaching out for a love that would save her. This, I think, is part of the fantasy of Monroe after her death, that you might be this man – if only she’d known you! – whose love would be subtle and tender enough to rescue her from the claws and rusty nails of this wretched life. There is the similar fantasy of the end of Blow Out, a vulnerable child-like woman unable to fend for herself who will be rescued by the hero, the hero a proxy of ourselves, redeeming everything in his life that has gone before. The Fury and Dressed to Kill foil the audience’s desires implicitly, you are given what you want, but you are likened to a monster. Blow Out is explicit, the fantasy is destroyed. The woman in trouble dies.
AMERICAN LIGHTNING / MEMORIES OF THE U.S.A. / THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION
As already said, the characters of Blow Out, people without college educations, people who would be considered part of that vague and stigmatized grouping, “working class”, are often placed on the fringes and the bottom tier roles of American movie life, the top roles reserved for executives, lawyers, doctors, and other members of the professional class, and the Philadelphia they live in is a visual reflection of this. What we see of the city is squalid and dirty, with an underlying current of despair and exhaustion, a sense perhaps of a partly abandoned city, a chunk of the population having already left for the outlying suburbs. We are given unflashy, unvarnished grit, a place of greys and faded light all the while the bright divisions familiar to all, of the American (and French) tricolor recur again and again, standing out in this stark landscape, before becoming the light that overcoats the tragic night scene at the liberty bell.
The color theme begins with the joke opening. The dancers in red and white negligées, the blue light behind them. Blow Out is a serious movie, but not self-importantly serious, and this scene contains one of my favorite lines in a De Palma movie for its beautiful delivery, “Oh, go to Sue. Fuck off.”:
The dominant red of the room in which the couple have sex. Red, obviously, is a good color to associate with sex. The main part of Blow Out is a movie without erotic sex (does anyone consider the blow job in the train station to be erotic?) and the only time this strong, overwhelming red recurs is in episodes of violence. The red of Manny Karp’s room when he forces himself on Sally, and is then knocked out by a beer bottle, the red light of the construction site where the first woman is killed, and the red light of the tower where Sally dies.
The red, white, and blue seen very briefly in one of the passing students:
The opening ends abruptly and we are in the screening room. Jack is in a blue shirt, there are the red curtains, and the man running the console wears white.
Small hints of the theme in the props of Jack’s office, the red white and blue of the schedule and the clock; the news with the liberty day logo and the newscaster in a tricolor outfit:
We leave the color scheme almost entirely in the pastoral setting of the accident, except for one element, the woman’s red coat:
During their first moments together after she’s recovered, Jack and Sally are in a setting which feels like a kind of purgatory, overwhelming white without any of the three colors:
This creates a striking contrast with the motel setting, where the colors come into play stronger than ever before. The cars in the parking lot bathed in red light from the motel insignia, which is a bell pattern in neon:
Burke changes the tire; blue coat, blue bag, red screwdriver, red wire cutters:
The red, white, and blue wallpaper of the motel room, the red, white, and blue bed settings, the blue drapes, the blue doors, the red phone, the red ashtray, the red chandeliers, Jack’s blue shirt, Sally’s white gown:
The red, white, and blue of the design on the door of the editing room where Jack puts together the edit of the accident photos and his sound recording:
The outside shot of Jack’s building as he finishes the edit of still photos and sound, red fire engine doors and red car, Jack works in a red shirt. Jack almost always wears combinations of red and blue:
There is the student of the opening that we briefly glimpse, in a red, white, and blue pattern, and the first victim who we follow for an extended period wears the very same tricolor mix, first spotted on an escalator where she is preceded by a crowd with prominent red and blue:
The two passing women who briefly obscure our gaze during this pursuit:
The red, white, and blue of the bus that blocks our view:
The red light that bathes the construction site, that shades Burke’s face, the tricolor pattern of the poster, which matches the pattern of the motel wallpaper, the red and blue of the victim’s sweater:
The red, white, and blue of the construction machines as we rise away from the building site:
With Mackey, Jack is now in all blue:
Jack goes to Manny Karp’s photo place, in red, shop with red dresses, passerby in blue:
At Manny Karp’s place, the red of the carpeting, the blue of the cop’s uniform, the whites of the photos. A sidenote: the pictures on the wall and the wallpaper make clear that the motel room at the beginning is in the same motel, perhaps the same room, where Sally and Manny do their divorce work:
Jack bullies Sally into getting the photos back from Manny, he’s in blue, she’s in red:
The overwhelming red of Manny Karp’s place:
Jack at the scream auditions, all blue, red curtains, the director in red:
The editing room when the tapes are erased, blue door, red extinguisher against white background:
Jack at home, red shirt, red cabinet, blue phone, white wall:
Jack and Sally speak on the phone, red shirt for Jack, white housecoat with blue trim and blue phone for Sally:
The red, white, and blue of the prostitute and the sailor in the train station:
The woman alone now in the phone booth:
Red dress, blue toothbrush, white bristles:
Sally in the train station; strong reds in this movie are associated with violence, and a group of children cross the station floor, the chain of red foreshadowing her doom:
Jack realizes something is wrong, red shirt and blue outfit:
As the chase begins, blue jeep and red car in the parking lot:
The tricolor of the parade members is obvious. The crowd sequence flooded with red and blue light should be well remembered by anyone who has seen the movie, and the following is a brief overview. The obvious zenith is Sally in front of the American flag, followed by the soldiers in revolutionary garb ringing the bell:
After Sally’s death, we move to a snow covered landscape, a bookend to the white background of the hospital room where Jack and Sally first spoke. Jack is all in blue, and he wore a blue trenchcoat and blue tie when he discovered Freddie’s body:
The white backgrounds of the snow covered park and the hospital room are one bookend, the other is the camera traveling from the tree leaves, to Jack’s technical equipment, till we reach a close-up of Jack himself, which is a mirror of the sound engineer on his listening expedition. Then, we moved along the antenna, now we move along the earphone wire:
The liberty bell strangler was finally killed, red white and blue:
We revisit Sally’s death in this last scene, and so the dominant color is the red of the studio drapes:
The use of this motif goes beyond the simple purpose of dramatic movement from low volume to crescendo; that these colors, recognizably American colors, reach their full bloom in a tragic act of violence that takes place in the background of a patriotic ritual, suggest the contradictions of the American character, a fascination with violence while denying that such attraction exists, or that the violence one is attracted to is anything but righteous, and yet this ambivalent fascination is not entirely a bad thing: it provided a vital heart to American movies and literature for decades. The finale of Blow Out is horrifying, but it’s also bravura, brilliant film-making, it’s gorgeous. Blow Out opens with a couple having sex in a room filled with red, and when the same dominant red appears later, it’s always there when violence is about to take place. This is a movie about a country at a time when violence was considered more acceptable than sexual desire, but it’s also about two characters, Jack Terry and Burke, whose sexual energies are sublimated in their obsessions. Film-making is an obsession as well, and the rich blooming colors of the ending are a counterpoint to the tragedy, but they are also the bright lights of ecstasy, the obsession fulfilled of the film-maker.
On The Projection Booth’s “Episode 140: Blow Out”, the movie’s upsetting terminus was discussed by both producer Fred Caruso and Nancy Allen, as well as the possibility of a happier coda.
This fragment runs approximately from 1:55:30 to 1:57:17 (audio is occasionally quirky here, but is entirely audible and coherent):
Let me tell you about the end of the picture. I mean, the film was well-received, as a decent business, but there was always the question, “Should Nancy Allen have lived at the end?” When John Travolta goes to the hospital and sees her, should her eyes have opened, should they have kissed on the lips, the music comes up, and a happy ending at the end. Yes, he could still be the soundman, he could still go back to his laboratory, he could still hear all of that stuff…but rather than making it such a sad, sad ending, black veiled, black cloud over the picture, what should the real ending have been in the movie? That was a question the studio had, George Litto had, I had, Brian had, and then Brian of course, said, “Look, that’s the ending of my movie. That’s how I end my movie. If the audience likes it, fine. If the audience don’t like it, fine.” So, there’s always been a controversy as to would the picture have been more popular with an audience, and done more business, if, and also if you recall, the one sheet advertising that you saw in the newspaper and the front of the theater, was a picture of John Travolta, black and white, with a horror scream, his face looked like a horror scream, and it said Blow Out, which made that look like a horror movie. Rather than a suspense love story. That’s the question, which would have been better, which would have been the better way to do it. I don’t know. But that was always wandering in the background, even as the picture got released.
This fragment runs approximately from 2:23:00 to 2:24:30:
I heard that there was a different ending to the film at one point.
A different ending? No, we, myself, [editor] Paul Hirsch, and…I forget who else, really lobbied to…once John got involved, and then you have the two of us together…my argument, well, Paul Hirsch said, “You can’t have- John Travolta can’t not save the girl.” (laughs) You can’t kill her. And people are going to love these two, and they’re going to hate you for doing this. My feeling was, she can die, but you have to really have to let them have that moment together, we have to feel that maybe there’s love, maybe there’s something, so people can really feel his loss. So, there was conversation. There was never a different ending. The only thing different, as I said earlier, there were no parades, there were no mummers’ parades, there were no fireworks, none of that existed, that was all developed to make it a bigger, more important picture, now that we had John in there. “Wait a minute, this is John Travolta,” you have to make- I believe it was George Litto who talked to Brian and said you know, we gotta do this, gotta make this bigger, so, that’s how that piece developed. But, Paul and I, whoever else was vying for a slightly different thing with John and I, we lost, John and Brian said, “NOPE,” it’s not happening. So, that’s what I remember.
The death of Sally does not strike me as capricious sadism, or arbitrary in any way, or anything other than organic to the material, a finale that feels necessary just as the death of Anna Karenina feels necessary, where one cannot imagine any other possibility that wouldn’t ring false, a betrayal of the story. The movie’s closing would have no tragic power if De Palma had contempt for this character, and killed her off because he wanted her to die. It has a tragic power because he, like the audience, wants this character to live, just as he wants Oanh of Casualties of War to live, and yet if these women were to survive, it would make everything that came before it meaningless. It would transform these movies into their antitheses, where none of the choices of the characters had any dramatic weight, because the very structure of the movie would ensure that these decisions would have no consequence, because events would always turn out for the best. What I’ve just described is a shared trait of most Hollywood movies now, and one which makes them, whatever the overdramatic stakes and whatever the portentous music, so entirely lacking in tension, for the simple fact that the game is rigged, and we are sure the heroes will end up in the proper winning square, whatever they’ve done beforehand on the playing board.
Though I know some have dismissed the last scene as a ludicrous twist, I can only see it as striking a very uncomfortable, uncannily truthful note. Jack Terry once used his skills for investigation, and he now uses them again for the purpose of perceiving more deeply. Sally Bedina is someone who forgets or pretends to forget the most difficult episodes of the past, and her gifts lie in concealment. Jack Terry is discouraged from looking deeper at a mysterious accident, and encouraged by the governor’s aide and the police to adopt something closer to the attitude of Sally, to stop remembering what’s so inconvenient. “We’d like you to forget about her, forget you ever saw her,” Lawrence Henry, the governor’s friend asks of Jack, speaking of Sally. “One playmate just vanishes from McRyan’s car, just like that?,” asks Jack. “That’s right,” says Henry. This kind of amnesia of historical events is often wrongly attributed as unique to the United States, when it very much isn’t, though it’s perhaps most striking in America because of its many virtues. It is an amnesia that perhaps began with its very birth, with the idea that no man or woman who was enslaved was truly human, and so this historical crime never actually took place. “Your past catching up with you?” someone asks a nervous Marilyn Monroe in Blonde. “I told you darling,” she replies. “I don’t have any past. ‘Marilyn’ was born yesterday.” There is a tradition, occasionally an American tradition, to cleave the horror from great tragedies to make something more palatable and profitable. In Gone With the Wind, the slaves are happy men and women who fight on behalf of their masters. M*A*S*H begins as a satire of the bloody absurdities of the Viet Nam war, and ended up an incredibly successful sitcom without any connection to the horrors of that war. The mass death and devastation of New York City is replayed as a background of colorful apocalypse in Man of Steel and Star Trek: Into Darkness. The horror of this last contains an extra frisson because it was connected to something very real, very upsetting, and now it is spliced into something without any such weight – and this splicing is exactly what Jack Terry does. He still has evidence of the conspiracy, having made a copy of the audio tape, and he could easily put it together with a series of photos again, since all that Frank Donahue ever wanted was just the audio tape. Jack Terry, however, has stopped investigating, and now he’s trying to do what Sally does, which is to just forget.
Jack Terry is involved in image-making, and throughout the movie, we are shown images made that turn out to be misleading, wrong, false, or exploitive, the surface horror of the viscera, rather than the squalid horrors of Sally’s life. “When these policies are carried out, and the economic climate improves, as we expect it will…the people will rally to support the president, in the upcoming primaries,” says campaign manager Jack Matters on TV in the opening. “A lot can happen between now and then.” The “lot that can happen,” which the TV doesn’t reveal has nothing to do with the policies, but the photos of Sally with McRyan. We are told on TV that the first woman is the victim of a ritual sex slaying, when we know her death is part of a cover-up plot. The movie ends with the news telling us that Burke was finally killed by Sally, when we know it was Jack. Neither Jack nor Sally are ever mentioned as being anywhere near the accident site. The news is misleading, or it is callously opportunistic. “EXCLUSIVE! PHOTOS OF MCRYAN’S DEATH!” blares the newsstand ad for the magazine with the pictures that Jack edits together, and the PHOTOS OF MCRYAN’S DEATH! have nothing to do with any larger investigation of the accident, but blood, guts, corpses. Jack works on movies that are horror and death as entertainment, and the newspapers are in the same business as well.
Jack Terry returns to cheapie horror, where blood, and death, and killing, disconnected from anything is acceptable. In this, he might also be tracing the very arc of his creator, who started out as a political film-maker before becoming very successful making thrillers, and would always arouse revulsion when he moved back into anything political. A movie about a sex criminal like Dressed to Kill or a fictionalized account of a crime fighting squad like The Untouchables is just a fun night at the movies. To make a movie about sex criminals in an actual historical context, with a very real individual fighting for justice in Casualties of War is to touch a third rail that everyone wishes did not exist. The problem with Jack Terry isn’t that he’s so emotionally destroyed that he uses a tragedy for its necrokineticism to give a cruel flourish of an exclamation mark to a terrible movie’s scary moment, because this kind of exploitation is commonplace and expected. The problem is that Jack Terry just can’t forget.
(On March 25th, 2014, some exact quotes were added, specific livelier substitutes in place of generalizations; no meanings were altered. Some new images were added as well, such as the comparison of the houses of Jack and Sally, as well as the text on the pointing fingers of Jack and the cop. The section on the hooker played by Deborah Everton was added as well. On March 26th, some small fixes were made, footnote #3 about Mackey in the flashback and the comparison of the personality types of Sally, Jack, and Burke was added. On March 28th, the text was again edited for various aesthetic fixes, and small issues of grammar. No new material was added on that date. On April 14th, 2014, the excerpt from Hunter Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt was added to the footnote on John McLaughlin.)
(All images from Blow Out copyright Orion Pictures. Images from All the President’s Men copyright Warner Bros. Images from Dressed To Kill copyright Filmways and associated producers. Images from Mission: Impossible and The Fury copyright Paramount Pictures. Images from The Black Dahlia copyright Universal Pictures.)
1 This subhead, as well as the part of the later subhead, “I am of both your directions”, is taken from the stanzas of a poem by Marilyn Monroe, excerpted in Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Anthony Summers:
I am of both your directions
Existing more with the old frost
Strong as a cobweb in the wind
Hanging downward the most
those beaded rays have the colors
I’ve seen in paintings – ah life
they have cheated you…
thinner than a cobweb’s thread
sheerer than any-
but it did attach itself
and held fast in strong winds
and singed by leaping hot fires
life – of which at singular times
I am both of your directions-
somehow I remain hanging downward
as both of your directions pull me.
2 The King Commission is an obvious substitute for the real life Knapp Commission (the wikipedia entry, “Knapp Commission”), which arose after Frank Serpico would testify to corruption in the NYPD. A number of movies feature the Knapp Commission, or an obvious stand-in, in their plots, including The Pope of Greenwich Village and Prince of the City. De Palma would spend many years developing Prince before it was taken away, to be directed eventually by Sidney Lumet.
In her interview on The Projection Booth, “Episode 140: Blow Out”, Nancy Allen would explain the connection between Prince, Blow Out, and the King Commission scene, fragment runs from 2:28:00 to 2:28:55:
That flashback, with Travolta, to that moment where the cop got killed, just adds so much to our understanding of him.
Oh yeah. It really does. And that was Brian’s opportunity, that was his wink and nod to Prince of the City, which he was originally supposed to direct. So, I don’t know if you’re familiar with that story, Prince of the City? About the corrupt cop. Well, he spent a lot of time developing it, he spent a lot of time with that cop, so I think this was Brian’s way of saying, well, you took the movie away from me, but I’m going to put a little bit of it in here anyhow. So, it served a good purpose, it exorcised those feelings for him, but I also think it served the character very well.
3 The further twist to this suspicion is that Mackey was there when things went very wrong at the taping of the undercover cop. When they’re prepping him, Jack very clearly says, “Mackey, hand me the tape.” No doubt Jack always considers the possibility that the whole incident might have been a case of internal sabotage to destroy the commission.
4 From the lecture “Jorge Luis Borges – The Metaphor [Conference]” (youtube link):
Since I spoke of “as old as time,” I must quote another verse, a verse that is perhaps bubbling up in your memory. I can’t recall the name of the author, I know it quoted in Kipling in a not too memorable book of his, From Sea to Sea. “A rose red city / Half as old as time”. Had the poet written “A rose red city / As old as time,” he would have written nothing at all. But half as old as time, gives it a kind of magic precision.
5 An article from the time when this tape was first released is “Tapes Show Nixon Ordering Theft of Files” (author unlisted):
Recently released audiotapes capture President Richard M. Nixon ordering his top aide, a year before the Watergate burglary, to break into the Brookings Institution and steal its files on Vietnam, The San Francisco Examiner reported today.
The newspaper quoted from a conversation between Nixon and his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, part of 201 hours of private tapes released this week by the National Archives.
During a conversation on June 30, 1971, in the Oval Office, Mr. Nixon asked Mr. Haldeman to take the institution’s files relating to the Vietnam War, the Examiner said.
According to a partial transcript provided by the newspaper, Mr. Nixon said to Mr. Haldeman: “The way I want that handled, Bob, is through another way. I want Brooking — just to break in. Break in and take it out! You understand?”
A transcript of a meeting from Stanley Kutler’s Abuse of Power, where breaking into the Institute was discussed:
JUNE 17, 1971, THE PRESIDENT, HALDEMAN, EHRLICHMAN, AND KISSINGER, 5:17-6:13 P.M., OVAL OFFICE
A few days after the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Nixon discusses how to exploit the situation to his advantage. He is interested in embarrassing the Johnson Administration on the bombing halt, for example. Here, he wants a break-in at the Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington think tank, to find classified documents that might be in the Brookings safe.
You maybe can blackmail [Lyndon B.] Johnson on this stuff [Pentagon Papers].
You can blackmail Johnson on this stuff and it might be worth doing…The bombing halt stuff is all in that same file or in some of the same hands…
Do we have it? I’ve asked for it. You said you didn’t have it.
We can’t find it.
We have nothing here, Mr. President.
Well, damnit, I asked for that because I need it.
But Bob and I have been trying to put the damn thing together.
We have a basic history in constructing our own, but there is a file on it.
[Presidential aide Tom Charles] Huston swears to God there’s a file on it and it’s at Brookings [Institution, a centrist Washington “think tank”].
…Bob? Bob? Now do you remember Huston’s plan [for White House-sponsored break-ins as part of domestic counter-intelligence operations]? Implement it.
…Now Brookings has no right to have classified documents.
…I want it implemented…Goddamnit, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.
They may well have cleaned them by now, but this thing, you need to-
I wouldn’t be surprised if Brookings had the files.
My point is Johnson knows that those files are around. He doesn’t know for sure that we don’t have them around.
6 The dialogue from the movie is my own transcript, as it is a little different from the script which can be found here. The speech by Waltzer is whole and uninterrupted in the screenplay, but the themes are the same:
I’ll go you one further. I say the CIA and all its shadow organizations have become irrelevant at best and unconstitutional at worst. It’s time we throw a little light on the whole concept of the Pentagon’s “black budget.” These covert agency subgroups have confidential funding, they report to no one — who are these people?! We were living in a democracy the last time I checked.
7 A photo of McLaughlin and Nixon, taken from “John McLaughlin (host) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia”:
From “Jesuitical Defense is given for Nixon” by Philip Nobile, an interview with McLaughlin from the time of Watergate:
Only one White House staffer would dare say that – compared with some ecclesiastical skeletons, Watergate is like the “peccadilloes of novice nuns.” He is the Rev. John McLaughlin, a Jesuit priest and presidential speechwriter. Although Father McLaughlin once ran for the U.S. Senate as a liberal Republican peace candidate, he now is a member of Richard Nixon’s church. The dictionary defines “Jesuitical” as “crafty, cunning, equivocal. Father McLaughlin is certainly all that in defense of the President. I have never heard a more benevolent explanation of the Watergate mess. Charity begins at home but McLaughlin abuses the virtue by whitewashing the entire affair.
Q. Aren’t you uncomfortable serving Richard Nixon in these times?
A. No. I believe the President is morally innocent in the developing events.
Q. You mean the President is without sin himself?
A. The most he can be charged with is holding too loose a rein on subordinates but the price of holding tighter would probably have meant forsaking singular and important initiatives, both foreign and domestic, which I would not have wanted to see him do.
Q. Why are you so convinced of Richard Nixon’s innocence? Despite everything that has been revealed so far, how can you still believe he has committed no wrong?
A. I know from the President’s demeanor, his habitual thinking regarding matters of ethical significance, his deference to people, his determination to leave lesser details to others and others to keep these details from him – the confluence of these factors leads me to that conclusion of the President’s innocence.
Q. If you were a betting man, would you wager that the President will serve out his term?
A. I certainly would.
McLaughlin also makes a brief, but memorable, appearance in Hunter S. Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt:
At that point in time, most of Nixon’s traditional allies were beginning to hear the death shrieks of the banshee floating over the White House lawns at night, and even Billy Graham had deserted him. So Clawson [White House Communications Director Ken Clawson], in a stroke of cheap genius, put a sybaritic Jesuit priest and a mentally retarded rabbi on the payroll and sent them forth to do battle with the forces of Evil.
Father John McLaughlin, the Jesuit, wallowed joyfully in his role as “Nixon’s priest” for a month or so, but his star faded fast when it was learned he was pulling down more than $25,000 a year for his efforts and living in a luxury apartment at the Watergate. His superiors in the church were horrified, but McLaughlin gave them the back of his hand and, instead, merely cranked up his speechmaking act. In the end, however, not even Clawson could live with the insistent rumor that the Good Jesuit Father was planning to marry his girlfriend. This was too much, they say, for the rigid sensibilities of General Haig, the White House chief of staff, whose brother was a legitimate priest in Baltimore. McLaughlin disappeared very suddenly, after six giddy weeks on the national stage, and nothing has been heard of him since.
But Clawson was ready for that. No sooner had the priest been deep-sixed than he unveiled another, holy man — the Rabbi Baruch Korff, a genuine dingbat with barely enough sense to tie his own shoes, but who eagerly lent his name and his flaky presence to anything Clawson aimed him at. Under the banner of something called the “National Citizens’ Committee for Fairness to the President,” he “organized” rallies, dinner parties and press conferences all over the country. One of his main financial backers was Hamilton Fish Sr., a notorious fascist and the father of New York Congressman Hamilton Fish Jr., one of the Republican swing votes on the House Judiciary Committee who quietly voted for impeachment.
8 The excerpts from The Genius and The Goddess by Jeffrey Meyers:
The nude calendar that Mankiewicz mentioned originated in May 1949 when Marilyn was an obscure and occasionally impoverished model. Tom Kelley photographed her perfect body, a modern Venus, in several poses and paid her a modest $50. He sold the pictures for $500 to a company that put them on calendars, sold them throughout America and made a huge profit of $750,000. In the best photo Marilyn is shot sideways (to hide her pubic hair) and from a ladder ten feet above her. Her long wavy blond hair flows from her backtilted head and mingles with the blood-red waterfall of drapery beneath her.
It’s sadly ironic that Marilyn herself did not live to see the sexual revolution and suffered greatly for being its symbol. She’d experienced intense sexual pleasure with Jim Dougherty and with Fred Karger in the mid-1940s; but by the 1950s, under the stress of promiscuous sex and stardom, she’d become frigid. In the late 1940s, when she was modeling and trying to break into movies, she rarely had natural and spontaneous sex. Instead, she was a prostitute, in cars on shady side-streets, in return for small amounts of money to buy food. It’s astonishing – after all her acting lessons and her brief appearances in movies – that she would not only sell her body for the price of a meal, but would also risk humiliation and shame, predatory pimps and police, robbery and beating, sadism and sodomy, venereal disease and pregnancy.
Employing a metaphor that colleagues often used to describe the frequently remote, self-absorbed and almost somnambulistic Marilyn, the screenwriter and producer of the movie, Nunnally Johnson, said Marilyn “is generally something of a zombie. Talking to her is like talking to somebody underwater. She’s very honest and ambitious and is either studying her lines or her face during all of her working hours, and there is nothing whatever to be said against her, but she’s not material for warm friendship.” Johnson also felt she was as unresponsive as “a sloth. You stick a pin in her and eight days later she says ‘Ouch.'” Despite Marilyn’s difficulties, this first Cinemascope picture was a great success and grossed five times its lavish budget of $2.5 million.
9 The Fury and Dressed to Kill are discussed in greater depth on this site in “Brian De Palma’s The Fury, Or: Hollywoodland” and “Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill, Or: Two Women”. The Black Dahlia is discussed at very, very great length in a five part series of posts: one, two, three, four, five.