This month Rooster Illusion‘s writers are taking a look at some of the important films they’ve shamefully only now gotten around to seeing. Sarah Lawrence and Aubrey Fox finally caught some horror and animation essentials respectively, and my superhero alter ego Capes on Camera watched Superman for the first time.
Growing up around Philadelphia, it became apparent to me pretty early that there weren’t all that many significant films set and filmed in my city. While I can name dozens of movies about our fellow major East Coast cities New York and Boston without breaking a sweat, it’s a harder task for my hometown. It’s part of why Rocky remains such an important part of the city’s culture and I remain partial to other luminaries such as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, those scenes in National Treasure, and the better parts of the Shyamalan oeuvre. So, it’s a little embarrassing that in my capacity as ardent Philadelphia film dork, I somehow missed out on Brian De Palma’s seedy thriller Blow Out, both filmed and set in Philly.
The plot: Recording nature sounds late at night, low-rent horror movie sound man Jack Terry (John Travolta), witnesses a car holding a powerful senator careen off the road into the creek. After saving the senator’s passenger, Sally (Nancy Allen), Jack is pressured to cover up his what he knows about the deadly incident. Reviewing his recording, Jack hears what sounds like a gunshot, and an accidental blow out begins to looks like murder. As Jack and Sally try to uncover the truth, the senator’s assassin Burke (John Lithgow) decides to tie up the loose ends, even if that means killing his way through Philly.
Blow Out is a thriller straight out of the Hitchcock tradition. The “right guy in the wrong place” setup, carefully crafted cinematography, and expert slacking and tightening of tension are characteristic of Hitchcock’s best, but calling Blow Out a Hitchcock rip-off (though it’s a fun combination of words to say, admittedly) would be a disservice. De Palma takes his Hitchcockian premise and makes a movie that’s visually distinct and unmistakably the director’s vision. Set against the backdrop of the celebration of the centennial of the last time the Liberty Bell was rung, De Palma takes the patriotic reds and blues of the celebrating city and saturates them into the gorgeous, searing extremes, making for an uncharacteristically bright thriller. The voyeurism and pointed male gaze that make Carrie deeply uncomfortable to watch at times are fused into the plot, as the hero is in turns aided and damned by his snooping. Blow Out falls somewhere between exploitation and sly commentary on exploitation and it’s never totally clear where one begins and the other ends.
While it deals in leering suspense, it’s the quiet moments that, for me, make Blow Out such a memorable watch. The chemistry between Travolta and Allen holds the film together more than anything else. Jack and Sally could have been insufferable under other actors, but the performance raises them from types to fleshed out characters. Like Hitchcock (last comparison I swear), De Palma knows that the more we care about the characters, the more suspenseful the film will be, and gives the two ample time to just be adorable together before things begin going very very poorly for them. For a director known primarily for shocking violence and sex, the dude knows how to film to people talking incredibly well.
As a Philadelphia movie, Blow Out is a different beast from the Rocky movies we hold dear. While Rocky has become symbolic of Philly’s underdog spirit and Always Sunny an avatar for a similar “no one likes us” pride, Blow Out is Philly not as scrappy underdog but as seedy noir-scape; the city is championed not by its story, but by its cinematography. The Philadelphia captured in Blow Out is not too different from the New York of movies like Taxi Driver and The Warriors, the city’s gorgeous architecture at odds with the early-80s grime and neon surrounding it. City Hall and the Ben Franklin Bridge loom at the end of rain slicked streets and lend the city an air of mystery movies like Rocky can’t explore. The Reading Terminal Market* becomes a claustrophobic setting for an on-foot chase. The scene of the catalyst car crash, filmed at night on the edge of the dense trees of Wissahickon Valley Park captures everything that makes that forest so awesome and foreboding after sundown. It’s a vision of the city at once familiar and incredibly different from the one I live in today, capturing one of the city’s toughest times with peculiar beauty.
If a great movie is one that changes the way you experience the world, Blow Out is certainly that. A masterclass thriller and validation of Travolta’s career, it’s a movie that’s made me reconsider my hometown. The Penn’s Landing waterfront seems decidedly more sinister to me, and I’ll never stop finding it funny that, er, a decidedly lewd scene is shot in the same hall in 30th Street Station where I had my junior prom. While its’s not the uplifting story that’s made Philly most famous film a cultural landmark, Blow Out is a genre classic that captures the best in a city at its worst. And I think that’s worthy of the same love we give the Italian Stallion.
*Home to my favorite pad thai and donuts in the city. Not at the same vendor, though.