In Philly Flix, I write about films set in and around Philadelphia, with each column highlighting a different one. I’m interested not only in the quality of the films, but in how they portray Philadelphia to the rest of the world.
What’s That Jawn About?
Blow Out is a 1981 thriller directed by Brian De Palma, starring John Travolta, Nancy Allen and John Lithgow. Travolta stars as Jack Terry, a sound technician for C-level horror movies. He seems to be amazing at his job- the kind of guy who is a constant underachiever. While collecting ambient sound for use in a slasher flick, he witnesses (and records the audio of) a car careening into Wissahickon Creek in a chaotic, frenzied moment. The accident that claims the life of a presidential hopeful; the governor of Pennsylvania. Narrowly escaping with her life is an escort girl named Sally, played by Nancy Allen. Upon further review, Jack finds his audio recording captured far more than he first realized, in direct nods to classics like Antonioni’s Blow Up and Coppola’s The Conversation. What follows is one of the most gripping, tense thrillers this side of Alfred Hitchcock, as Jack finds himself falling deeper and deeper into a rabbit hole of murder and political conspiracy.
Philly Flavors: (The section dedicated to exploring what parts of Philly show up onscreen, visually, culturally and otherwise)
Director Brian De Palma was raised in Philadelphia and attended Friends Central, graduating high school in the class of 1958. Blow Out comes off like a love letter to his home town, as no film ever set in Philadelphia captures the landscapes and landmarks with more grace or aesthetic value. De Palma is most famous for directing genre pieces like Carrie or Scarface, but at his most personal he is known as an interpreter of Hitchcock. Voyeuristic thrillers about the watcher and the watched have always been his bread and butter, and Philadelphia here is treated like the perfect sandbox in which to play that out. There’s a murder in the bathroom at 30th Street Station, a gripping car chase through a 4th of July Market Street parade, breathtaking overhead shots of City Hall, and the famous Wissahickon Creek crash sequence. The climax plays out at the 4th of July fireworks celebration at Penn’s Landing, set during the bicentennial of 1976. Philadelphians can watch the film and know exactly where the action is taking place at every moment, and De Palma seems dedicated to getting the geography and physical proximities down just right.
Accent Watch: ( The section dedicated to monitoring whether or not the onscreen actors actually attempt something akin to a regionally appropriate way of talking).
In this section, the question of whether or not they get an authentic Philly accent down is going to be no, nearly 100% of the time. Actors in Philly set movies more often than not are just talking like they are from Brooklyn, which with the exception of Boston, Hollywood assumes is where every city dweller on the east coast is from. John Travolta hails from Bergen County in North Jersey, and talks exactly like he talks in every other movie from his early career. John Lithgow does his perfectly and intensely annunciated New Englander John Lithgow voice. There’s nary a Philly accent to be found in this flick.
Cheesesteak Rating: (The section that imagines what the cheesesteak equivalent of the movie would be, taking into account things like quality, geography, and cultural background) A large from D’Alessandros. Allow me to explain with a little context. Rocky is deservedly the ultimate Philly movie. But Blow Out is the greatest Philadelphia movie that most people haven’t seen. It is to Rocky as D’Alessandros is to Pat’s: perfect and delicious, a little off the beaten path, with only a dedicated following knowing about it (compared to Pat’s dependable but slightly tired and touristy King of Steaks). I also chose it because of its geographical proximity to the famous crash scene, in Roxborough.
If you’ve never seen Blow Out, what are you waiting for? Get a large from D’Alessandros, rent it on any streaming platform, sit down and enjoy.