Cinema Slueth – Blow-Up

Stars: 4.5 / 5

Recommendation: It’s mysterious, ambiguous and a thriller that has no thriller just like the protagonist’s character. Explores the emptiness inside the photographer’s life; a character study of the protagonist with nothingness surrounding him.

Blowup is a 1966 mystery thriller film starring David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave,  Sarah Miles, John Castle, Jane Birkin and the famous 1960s model Veruschka. Directed by  Michelangelo Antonioni and produced by Carlo Ponti, it was Antonioni’s first entirely English-language film. Distributed by Premier Productions.

The story was inspired by Julio Cortázar’s 1959 short story “Las babas del diablo”, collected in the book End of the Game and Other Stories, in turn based on a story told to Cortázar by photographer Sergio Larraín. The screenplay was by Antonioni and Tonino Guerra, with English dialogue by British playwright Edward Bond.

Photographer Thomas (portrayed by David Hemmings) photographs a kissing couple. Jane (portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave) demands him to give her the camera film. But he chases her away all the while photographing her. Unbeknownst to him he captures a murder on his film. He resorts to solve the mystery, and landing into traps and troubles along the way.

The film was aired on TCM as part of their “Follow the Thread” limited series where they aired movies each Saturday evening in June and July 2022 focusing on the fashion rather than the actual plot. True to the concept this film comes with its own fashion photographer in the form of David Hemmings as Thomas.

The series was hosted by TCM host Alicia Malone with American costume designer Mark Bridges discussing the fashion over the years and focusing on the movie in question and how fashion impacted it. The whole series was inspired by The Met Exhibition, In America, An Anthology of Fashion.

However, the reason I was intrigued by this movie was the little snippet TCM puts on when we browse the schedule. That snippet reminded me of a 2008 Indian Hind-language action thriller film 8X10 Tasveer (= 8X10 Picture). But the actual movie turned out to be something very different, and totally unexpected.

David Hemmings who is the main character as the photographer Thomas surprisingly gets a third billing. His styling of white pants and blue shirt has been used by several actors in several movies henceforth. I distinctly remember him for his role as Errol Pogson, a Scotland Yard detective, in the Season 3 Episode 12 of the 80s-90s American crime drama television series Murder, She Wrote. His episode was titled The Corpse Flew First Class that aired first in January of 1987 – 21 years after this film was released.

Vanessa Redgrave (portrays the role of Jane) and Sarah Miles (portraying the role of Patricia) get top billing. And yet they turn up very late in the film. Sarah Miles can be seen first 21 mins into the film and Vanessa Redgrave turns up 28 mins into the film.

The film defies the Hollywood’s Production Code considering it has explicit sexual content. It is considered as one of the first daring counterculture-era film to be released in America. This film certainly helped relieve Hollywood of it’s rigid and old moral code which was more than hypocritical at all times. It is one of the first British feature film showing full frontal nudity.

Enjoy a brief show and a very rare performance by The Yardbirds, the then famous English rock band. You get to see three of the band members – Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck on guitar and Keith Relf on vocals – performing the song “Stroll On”.

Here is there video of performing in the movie.

And the original video of the song

Of course witness the life of Swinging London through the cinematography by Carlo di Palma. The entire mod subculture of the 1960s Swinging London in the film was also inspired by David Bailey’s photographs. Obviously we get to see all the Mod culture, various photo shoots through the film, so very many party scenes.

The costume designer was Jocelyn Rickards who was originally from Australia. She blended the 1960s Swinging London culture into Antonioni’s vision of the story perfectly. Checkout some of her designs in the fashion photoshoots by Thomas in the film. No underwear and just clothes, the costumes are definitely ramp-worth but not something one would wear it on street or to a party.

Also her costumes for non-photoshoots were also noteworthy.

Hemmings as Thomas, the protagonist, is so selfish and self-centered. He doesn’t have any care for his models or for Jane whom he photographs in the park. He feels no responsibility for his part in any of the aftermath. And he feels his camera speaks for all the emotions he need to display. He blows-up his photos often to look them up close and see what he cannot find within himself. Yet, when an image is blown-up, it decompose the image into something that is not discerning. Instead it becomes obscure and the essence of the image disappears.

The film also explores the side of media who take pictures and exploit. Where one uses the ruse of a camera to get into other people’s personal lives; how ruthless they can be. It also explores the fashion industry exploits, the casting couch per se, and how Hemming’s Thomas has no qualms in using the helpless models in what which way he wants. Also shows how the photographers literally treat the models as objects rather than living breathing people. Sad to see such cruelty in a world filled with glamour and glitz.

Comin to the fashion element of this film, one gets to see contrast of fashion between the older and younger people. In one scene in particular the London streets show very composed and muted costumes for older generation while the younger kids exploring changes in fashion. Note the kids at the Yardbirds concert scene. They are all so modern and contemporary to the current era. Even the sounds in the background are contrast – the noisy club scene and immediately followed by a somewhat quiet street scene.

Although this was aired on TCM to showcase the fashion, the entire film’s focus is on the emptiness inside the photographer’s life; how busy he keeps himself in a superficial sense. But deep down he has nothing to cheer for inside him. This makes him cynical, unsympathetic and emotionless; everything he does is work and nothing more. It’s mysterious, ambiguous and a thriller that has no thriller just like the protagonist’s character.

Spoiler Alerts:

Movie Trivia:

  1. Note the original movie poster of the film.

2. The film was released paired in a double-bill with Sandra Dee’s 1967 American comedy film Doctor, You’ve Got to Be Kidding!, when it got a general release in Britain a year after its original release.

3. We get to see the 1960s famous model Veruschka von Lehndoff who plays herself in the film. An entire photoshoot with the protagonist shows us a look inside a fashion photographer and how they play the models.

4. Note that Thomas uses a two way radio from his Rolls Royce several times in the film. Very rare for 1966 and is a precursor to what would turn into car phones in the next decade.

5. Thomas’s assistant in the film was portrayed by Reg Wilkins, real-life London photographer David Montgomery’s real-life assistant. His role was also called Reg.

6. Acclaimed British television actor and presenter Geoffrey Hayes gets an uncredited role as a propeller delivery man.

7. Check out Janet Street-Porter – British broadcaster and media personality – in a silver jacket and red/yellow striped PVC trousers dancing to the Yardbirds performance in the club.

8. Interesting note of fact is that the movie opens with mimes and ends with mimes. Although Thomas connects himself to mimes more towards the end of the film rather than the beginning.

Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

  1. In several back to back scenes, Janet’s hairstyle keeps changing. For example, when she confronting Thomas in the park, her hairstyle goes from brushed straight to parted hair between scenes.
  2. Thomas also has his haircut different right in the middle of a scene. Checkout the Yardbirds concert, you can see what I mean.
  3. Crew or equipment can be seen in several scenes. For example, you can see the shadow of camera crew when Thomas is driving home from the factory in the beginning of the film. In the scene with Thomas and the two girls with purple backdrop in the studio, two crew members including a camera operator can be clearly seen just sitting there in the top right side of the frame. Later when he is making a call in the telephone booth, we can see a bald man with shades on top right corner of the booth.
  4. Unless there are Pride & Clark stores at every intersection, we see the store appear several times when Thomas is driving from his studio. Perhaps the scenes were reused.
  5. In the antique shop scene, Thomas displaces all the bust sculptures from the top shelf. However they are all back in perfect order in the next scene.
  6. In the scene where Jane gives Thomas her number, notice a small coiled up hair at the bottom of the screen. Perhaps it was stuck to the camera because it follows along the characters wherever the camera goes. It disappears from the following scene.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: