EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was originally published on the blog Mondo Jawn.
Billy Penn recently posted a list grading films to find the “most Philly movie ever made.” As expected, Rocky and Creed appear, as do Silver Linings Playbook and Invincible. What’s surprising is that someone remembered Trading Places.
Reading over their list, however, I grew frustrated. Specifically, I thought, “Here we go again, another Philly journalist has cultural amnesia.” Generally speaking, people writing about Philly can only recall events that happened within the last 10 or so years. If they do include something older, it’s probably something so well-known that it isn’t really that significant.
Of course, being the angry film nerd that I am, I couldn’t let their list go without some criticism. Most of the movies they listed are common knowledge. Do we really need another article telling us Rocky’s jog isn’t realistic, or that Silver Linings Playbook is a garbage film? (Billy Penn doesn’t call Silver Linings Playbook a garbage film, but Billy Penn should have called Silver Linings Playbook a garbage film). With that in mind, I chose to highlight five lesser-known movies that are “Philly” as Creed.
1. Downtown (1990)
A buddy cop film about the Philly PD? Finally!
In the wake of the success of 48 Hours, it seemed like there were dozens of imitators being released every year. Sometimes they worked, but most of the time you ended up with Turner & Hooch. Inexplicably, someone thought it would be a good idea to make a buddy cop movie about a Bryn Mawr transplant moving to the big city of Philadelphia to fight crime.
Anthony Edwards plays Alex, a Bryn Mawr cop transferred from his cushy job in the ‘burbs to work in Philly. No one expects him survive, and he’s treated as more of an annoyance than a legitimate cop. Forest Whitaker is Dennis, a detective forced to work with Alex and play baby-sitter.
If you’ve seen one buddy cop movie, you’ve seen them all. Downtown sets itself apart from some of the lesser clones thanks to inventive stunt work and unique locations, which were filmed the city in neighborhoods like Norris Square and Germantown, offering a bit of authenticity lacking from other films of this nature. The locations specifically offer a Philly flair due to their inclusion of areas that people wouldn’t have immediately associated with the city but offered a truer-to-life interpretation.
2. Trick Baby (1972)
Another crime film…
A rare blaxploitation film set in the city. Based on a novel by the inimitable crime writer Iceberg Slim, Trick Baby follows two con men, a black hustler and his mixed-race protégé, as they work cons on a number of targets – mostly white businessmen. Eventually, however, the two stumble into the biggest con of their career and make enemies of the mob.
Trick Baby is one of those rare instances of a genre picture which has something to say and works on both levels. While crime is the backdrop of the film, the actual story is about race relations in the United States circa the 1970s. White Folks is a mixed-race hustler who can pass as white. This offers him certain advantages but also presents him with other disadvantages. While he and his partner Blue can use his light skin as a part of their con, earning the trust of naive and bigoted white marks to subvert traditional power structures, he’s also a man stuck between two worlds. He can pass, but he’s rejected by the community he identifies with most.
Nothing particularly noteworthy about this film from a Philly perspective. But, come on, they included Silver Lining Playbook, so….
3. Fighting Back (1982)
You ever wish Chuck Bronson lived in Philly? Would you settle for Tom Skerritt?
There seems to be a recurring theme here about the city being a rough place. Who’d a guessed? Tom Skerritt stars as John, a working-class South Philly deli owner who runs afoul of a pimp named Eldorado. Eldorado, not being a man of reason, chases John and his wife, causing John’s wife to have a miscarriage. Johns vows revenge in the only way he knows how… by starting a gang that falls somewhere between the Guardian Angels and a Communist uprising (they call themselves The People’s Neighborhood Patrol, after all).
If Fighting Back has anything to say about victim’s rights or justice, it’s flat-out terrifying. The general tone of the film is “might makes right” as the Philly PD kowtows to John’s group of jack-booted schlubs, and John himself is eventually elected a City Councilman based on his “bash the crumb bums’ skulls in” platform. Imagine Death Wish retold through the eyes of Frank Rizzo.
4. Blow Out (1981)
Political intrigue not involving a soda tax
This one isn’t necessarily a “lesser-known film” in the sense that the film is obscure. It’s “lesser-known” in the sense that a lot of people forget it’s set in Philadelphia!
Jack, a small-time foley artist, is wandering the city looking for the perfect scream for a new slasher film he’s working on when he spots a car run off the road and into a creek. Jack saves the passenger, an escort, but finds out the man she was with a candidate for President. Using his skills as a foley artist, Jack reconstructs the events leading up to the crash and unintentionally involves himself in a wide-ranging conspiracy.
Blow Out is notable for being the best film on this list and not just because it’s a spiritual remake of a Michelangelo Antonioni film. It features a number of fantastic performances from the likes of John Travolta, Nancy Allen, and John Lithgow, in addition to a surprisingly tense script which makes use of classic Philadelphia landmarks in clever ways. It’s probably the only film you’ll ever see whose plot hinges heavily on the architecture of the Independence Seaport Museum, using it in the foreground of its memorable fireworks scene. Other prominent old Philly locations featured in the film include the Wanamaker’s Department Store (now a Macy’s) and the Apollo Theater, making Blow Out a time capsule of an era in the city long lost.
5. Birdy (1984)
Who would’ve thought Philly had another Nic Cage connection?
Okay, one final one… and it doesn’t involve violence! Well, sort of.
A coming-of-age drama about two friends growing up in the 1960s Philadelphia. The movie stars Matthew Modine as Birdy and Nicolas Cage as his best friend, Al. Birdy is… a little off. He’s obsessed with birds, as his name might imply, and dreams of flight. Both figurative and literal. Al is the exasperated friend who follows Birdy in his adventures all the way to Vietnam, where the two are separated for a short time before being reunited under much sadder circumstances.
Birdy is interesting because it portrays an aspect of life in the city that often goes overlooked. Most films that deal with Philly either focus heavily on the crime (every other film on this list) or fetishize the heroic struggle of its working-class residents (Rocky, et al). Birdy is a sweet, if sometimes strange look at two people just trying to find meaning in life. What’s even more fascinating about the film is the role reversal between the two leads; Cage, known for his outlandish method acting, is relatively dialed back (or as dialed back as Nic Cage can be), while Matthew Modine, no stranger to scenery chewing but still most frequently portrayed as the straight man in many films, is the awkward outsider. The city figures mostly into the first half of the film but establishes Birdy and Al’s roots as kids from working class Philadelphia in search of something more out of life.
As you can see, these films all offer distinct visions of Philadelphia. They often tend toward the lurid, but then, this city has a history. Instead of watching Rocky or Creed for the umpteenth time, maybe consider giving one of these films a chance.