September 23, 2014
Blow-Up (1966)
Grade: 75/100

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Stars: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Jeff Beck

What it's about. A mod murder mystery set in London. Wide-eyed and intense mop-top David Hemmings is a highly successful fashion photographer. He has a would-be girlfriend Sarah Miles, who instead shags painter John Castle.

Hemmings has a photo shoot with beanpole model Veruschka von Lehndorff, followed by another with a quintet of less emotive models. Young and persistent would-be models Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills show up but Hemmings puts them off.

Hemmings has encounters with a troupe of mimes, drives his sportscar, buys a giant propeller at an antique shop, and meets with agent Peter Bowles. More interesting is a fairly young Vanessa Redgrave, whom he sees cavorting in an otherwise empty park with an older man. Hemmings is quick to photograph Redgrave. When she discovers this, Redgrave pursues Hemmings ardently, and is willing to do anything (i.e. get stoned, or have sex) with him in return for the film from the camera.

But Hemmings fools Redgrave, and swaps the film canister with a different role. He develops the impromptu shoot of Redgrave, and discovers that her older boy toy has been murdered. However, he takes time out from his investigation to romp naked with Birkin and Hills, a scene that will make any man under 40 want to become a fashion photographer.

Rather than call the police (who might, after all, take an interest in his own drug and sex shenanigans) Hemmings decides to conduct his own murder investigation. Because it is a movie, Hemmings finds the body still in the park, yet somehow doesn't have his camera with him. Meanwhile, his flat has been cased by the killer, who takes all the film and prints.

Hemmings persists in his now hopeless quest to prove there has a been a murder. Because it is a movie, he spots Vanessa Redgrave on the street, entering a club. Remarkably, the Yardbirds are performing, with both Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck as guitarists. Hemmings loses Redgrave in the crowd. Despondent, he drops acid and crashes at Bowles' place. The next day, he returns to the park, but the body is gone. He then watches mimes pretend to play tennis.

How others will see it. Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni was already famous and successful prior to Blow-Up. In fact, L'Avventura and L'Eclisse are arguably better known and more highly regarded, especially in Italy.

But Blow-Up had several things that those two movies did not. Such as a naked blonde beauty, color cinematography, and English language screenplay, a Herbie Hancock score, Academy Award winning actress Vanessa Redgrave, and charismatic David Hemmings.

In any event, the MGM production caused both a scandal and a sensation. It was lauded by critics and heralded at film festivals. At Cannes, it won the Palme d'Or. It picked up two nominations at the Oscars and two more at BAFTA.

Today at, the movie has a high (for a 1966 film) vote total of 35K. The user ratings are fairly lofty at 7.7 out of 10, though they decline moderately with the advancing age of the viewer. Presumably, older audiences are more likely to condemn, rather than admire, the hedonistic and risk-taking lifestyle of our photographer lead.

How I felt about it. It is said that Blow-Up captures a moment: 1966 London, before Mod ceded to psychedelia. The lead character is apparently based on a real-life British photographer, David Bailey. Hemmings is the British "it" man, the successor to Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney, and the predecessor of Oliver Reed and Malcolm McDowell.

Everything is exaggerated, of course. But the film certainly looks good, even when not much is happening. The script is insightful, the acting is excellent, and the cinematography is top notch. The story is difficult to follow the first time through, but who sees this movie just once?

True, we do wonder why the killer leaves the body in a public park for hours. That does not show good planning. We also wonder, where is the blood? If you shoot someone dead, things could get messy.

But we admit that Hemmings, Redgrave, and Birkin look great on camera. And while it is unlikely to be an accurate reflection of 1966 London, it is certainly how we would have wanted it to be.