Thomas (David Hemmings, Gangs of New York) takes snaps. All sorts, really, but it’s those arty, modish fashion spreads he creates—with both color splashes and waifish, glassy-eyed models—for leading fashion magazines that makes him all the rage in Swinging London, circa the mid-sixties. One afternoon on a lark, our man spies a couple snogging in the park. The light is perfect, making the greenery really pop, and the couple’s whimsical cavorting inspires him, so Thomas starts clicking away.
Upon noticing him, the beautiful young woman (Vanessa Redgrave, The Gathering Storm) accosts the camera man, demanding that he hand over the film, but he refuses. Meanwhile, the distinguished, graying gentleman (Ronan O’Casey, Bitter Victory) she’d dallied with has disappeared, and Thomas also makes a getaway, jumping into his sporty roadster and speeding off.
He’s shocked when the woman turns up later, on his doorstep. Renewing her demands with greater urgency, she begins removing her shirt to assure him that she means business when she says that she’ll do anything to possess those negatives. Fobbing her off with another roll of film, Thomas can’t help wondering what was so God-awfully important about those pictures, anyway? After developing them, he notices an ephemeral blur in the grass and then, upon blowing up the images, he begins to suspect that he’d unwittingly captured a homicide in progress.
Now if you’re looking for a ripping murder mystery, Blow-Up most probably won’t satisfy. Not that a murder mystery was the point of the film, anyway. No, Blow-Up features TODAY, man! Well, today as it was half a century ago among the Carnaby Street set; famously described by Jean-Luc Godard as “the time of James Bond and Vietnam.”
Behold a pop-art world, where long-haired men and women melted into an androgynous blur, dandied up in paisleys from Granny Takes A Trip, and miniskirts from Mary Quandt. The streets were alive with Aston Martins, Mini-Coopers, and ban-the-bomb protesters, while on a given night, Thomas could come home to find two comely wannabe models (Jane Birkin, the Blonde, and Gillian Hills, the Brunette) upstairs, playfully wrestling in the nude, but for their see-through, candy-colored tights.
Don’t get me wrong: Blow-Up isn’t simply the result of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura) luckily stumbling into the right place at the right time with his camera crew ready and the lens cap off. Nor is it a muffed attempt at a murder mystery that, as a result of some happy accident, has been saved by its ability to capture a spectacular epoch in progress—in fact, the short story that inspired this film was equally uninterested in becoming a detective’s tale. Simply put, here’s proof of one of cinema’s premier artists, working at the peak of his powers while shooting his first English language feature, to boot—English being a language the man could barely speak or understand!
Saints be praised: Criterion brings Blow-Up to Blu-ray with a newly (4k) restored 1.85:1/1080p transfer that perfectly displays Carlo Di Palma’s (Radio Days) agelessly brilliant cinematography. An equally distnguished LPCM 1.0 audio track accompanies, expertly dispensing dialogue, ambiance, Herbie Hancock’s thrilling, jazz-tinged score, and the Yardbirds—in rave-up mode—during that all-too brief period when their lineup boasted future guitar Gods Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, no less.
What’s more, Criterion has gone all Criterion Collection over celebrating this fiftieth anniversary release by stuffing the package with worthy extras. Before one gets to the disc, there’s a lovely, photo-laden, 64 page booklet to contend with, containing two essays, reproductions of the questionnaires distributed by Antonioni to various London artists as part of his pre-production work, and a copy of that aforementioned, inspirational short story by Julio Cortázar, translated from the original Spanish by Paul Blackburn.
On disc, the feature is joined by a trio of newly-commissioned featurettes: “Blow Up of Blow-Up,” a nearly hour-long making of documentary; Antonioni’s Hypnotic Vision, a critical analysis of the film which is broken into two parts (“Modernism” and “Photography,”) and runs just under forty five minutes, as does an in-depth interview with Vanessa Redgrave, conducted by art historian Philippe Garner, in early 2016.
Additionally, the set boasts an interview with Jane Birkin, from 1989, and a pair of interviews with David Hemmings, who died in 2003. The first is a fleeting chat with the actor on a movie set from 1968, and the other is a revealing twenty minute sit-down with host Brian Linehan, taped in 1977 for an American talk show called City Lights.
Finally, the master himself—who passed in 2007, at the age of ninety four—shows up via archival footage, excerpted from the 2001 documentary Michelangelo Antonioni: The Eye That Changed Cinema.
What, you still want more? O.K. then: Criterion also tosses in the original theatrical trailer and a second “teaser” trailer, which runs about one minute and was most likely produced for airing on television.
Short of getting into a time machine and transporting yourself back to a movie house in 1966 (permeated with the heady aromatic mix of joss sticks and buttered popcorn), I can’t imagine a better way to experience this still mind-blowing cinematic excursion.
So what are you waiting for? Passing on the chance to see Blow-Up makes about as much sense as giving up air and water.
Not guilty, baby.