The 5 Best Films Set In Philadelphia
By John Saeger
An overwhelming number of movies are set (and shot) in Los Angeles, Boston, or one of New York City’s boroughs. Philadelphia ranks somewhere in between these cities as an American film backdrop. It lacks the size of the Big Apple and glamour of Hollywood, but Philly’s unique fusion of neighborhoods and cultures stands as a singular canvas for cinema.
The 2003 heist movie The Italian Job took a pit stop in the City of Brotherly Love. Buried in the DVD extras are notes from the production team on the area’s brief inclusion in the film. The paragraph reads,
“Philadelphia – Cold, harsh and uninviting, this town should perfectly reflect Stella’s initial reaction to Charlie. We want to avoid familiar postcard images including things like the Liberty Bell. Grey sides, cold winds, muted colors, soot coatings on cement buildings and similar elements will create our vision of this bleak, weathered town.”
Anyone from the city will tell you that Philly is much more colorful than austere exteriors. Parochial neighborhoods, ranging from South Philly to the Main Line, fit some of the most potent cinema ever made. The American Film Institute placed two films set in Philadelphia in its 100 Years… 100 Movies list in 1998. Boxing drama Rocky and the classic comedy The Philadelphia Story ranked 78 and 51, respectively. M. Night Shyalman’s thriller The Sixth Sense was added to AFI’s revised rankings in 2007.
In between Katherine Hepburn, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis are a host of films that made a memorable commercial and artistic impact.
- Trading Places turned the unlikely swap of Eddie Murphy and Dan Akyroyd into comedy gold.
- Witness merged two different cultures by transitioning the bustle of the city into the tranquility of Lancaster County.
- The musical 1776 set the Continental Congress to song. A concept that would later be expanded on through Hamilton.
- Philadelphia broke cinematic ground in its exploration of homosexuality and homophobia.
Some of these films tap into the character of a city known for a unique collection of neighborhoods with distinct personalities. Sports play as an integral vehicle for relaying the city’s culture and penchant for long shots. Invincible portrayed the unlikely transition of Delaware County’s Vince Papale from Iggles season ticket to Eagles special teams ace. Silver Linings Playbook incorporated the region’s manic passion for football into a whirlwind romance that can be revisited in a booth at the Llanerch Diner.
The Rocky franchise explored the big city’s idolization of the little guy eight times. The middle movies of the series strayed from the cinematic pop of the 1976 indie film that won Best Picture, but Stallone’s most recent boxing output rediscovered its heart as he embraced the grit of the region with different uphill battles. Rocky Balboa returned our hero as he picks up golden gloves in his silver age and again battles for respect. Michael B. Jordan’s Creed films resurrected the franchise through immersive filmmaking that extended the story into different sections of the city that have never been explored on a blockbuster level. This biracial passing of the torch is a unique handoff that few series approach.
The most recent film of note to be set in Philadelphia is Martin Scorsese’s Netflix marathon The Irishman. The Robert De Niro art mob piece was widely-praised cinema that would normally be a director’s magnum opus… if that filmmaker was not someone with Scorsese’s CV. Even though the film did not win any Academy Awards, The Irishman received an incredible ten Oscar nominations and plaudits from a host of critics. Without further ado, here are the top five films that take place in Philly:
The 5 Best Films Set In Philadelphia
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
The story of star-crossed Main Lovers remains a legendary intersection of three screen legends 80 years after its release. Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Katharine Hepburn topped a bill with Ruth Hussey. Their star-studded chemistry yielded one of Hollywood’s most celebrated love stories. The film also possesses an innocence of the antebellum period that would be shattered after America’s entry into World War II the following year.
Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a prestigious socialite from suburban Philadelphia who is rebounding from her divorce of the wealthy C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) to a new member of their social caste. Stewart and Hussey are two reporters assigned to cover the wedding. Within this premise, the journalists are cynical of the ultra-wealthy and how they have lost touch with the simple joys of life.
Her turn in The Philadelphia Story was something of a comeback for Hepburn, who had gone through a box office slump. The actor’s character was based on Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, a well-known Main Liner of the time. Hepburn, who attended Bryn Mawr College, channeled her time at the suburban school for ladies in her stage and screen renditions of the story. The Main Line may not be explored on the level of South Philly or Delco, but Hepburn and the film bring an unmatchable depiction of the period’s R5 corridor.
The magic of the cast resulted in three of its four leads receiving Oscar nominations (all but Grant). The Philadelphia Story was considered for six Academy Awards and ultimately garnered two wins. Even in a particularly golden year for cinema, the film endures as a standout movie. The Grapes Of Wrath, Our Town, Rebecca, and The Great Dictator are some of the most acclaimed films of the year, but The Philadelphia Story stands on merit. Even though it does not hold the importance of The Grapes of Wrath or the timeless ingenuity of The Great Dictator, the Main Line tale has intangibles that withstand the passage of time. There is no substitute for great writing and screen chemistry.
Another movie with dynamic acting, Philadelphia is a powerful statement on the hatred the LGBTQ community endures. The movie stars Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington as lawyers embroiled in an AIDS discrimination lawsuit. Hanks is an attorney who was fired from his firm after contracting the disease. His screen companion is a homopobic attorney whose bias fades as he fights for the sick client.
Philadelphia was directed by Jonathan Demme. The piece was the filmmaker’s followup to the Silence of the Lambs. An unlikely project to succeed the landmark horror movie, Philadelphia was a culturally risky subject at the time of its release. The movie came out as AIDS and homosexuality was a taboo subject (four years prior to Ellen DeGeneres experiencing a set back by identifying as a lesbian on television). The piece was the first major motion picture to tackle these stories.
Many of these topics are more freely explored in films today, although even light displays homosexuality in mainstream stories in films like The Rise of Skywalker and Toy Story 4 experience harmful blowblack. Philadelphia ripped the bandaid off the subject and forced viewers to consider their own hidden bias. The heart-wrenching film is necessary cinema that hits like a hammer striking an emotional anvil.
The story’s impact is driven home by co-stars in unlikely roles. Both Hanks and Washington are two captivating actors who display masculinity in different ways, but the movie is atypical of their careers. Hanks is the perpetual everyman who captains men through danger. Washington is the dynamic screen force who performed Shakespeare and starred in a John Grisham adaptation in the same year as Philadelphia. As terrific as Hanks’ turn is, Washington’s performance is the unparalleled transformative cinema that drives the movie.
His character’s gradual evolution from homophobic attorney to fearless advoacate is done with nuance and power. Washington’s onscreen journey shepherds the audience to realize the pitfalls of implicit and explicit homophobia. Hanks won an Oscar for Philadelphia, but the transition of Washington’s persona is the film’s enduring legacy.
Trading Places (1983)
There are some comedy bits in Trading Places that do not age as well as other members of this list, but the premise of the film shattered cinematic norms of its time. Two brothers engaged in a debate on nature versus nurture make a wager to place a poor black man (Eddie Murphy) in charge of a commodities firm run by a polished member of their own circle (Dan Akyroyd).
Not unlike The Philadelphia Story, the film is a scathing look at the disparity between high society and disadvantaged Americans. Elements of this swap are regularly showcased in film and literature, but nothing broke the mold like Trading Places. On the surface, the movie exploits an unlikely scenario and has a few memorable laughs. There is more to Trading Places than most comedies of its time.
The film predates the “greed is good” mantra of Wall Street and shows the ridiculousness of absurd wealth. Added into this mix is a racial component as the brothers vividly balk at the concept of having an African-American run their business. Their experiment reveals that the thought of a black person entering their circle is something they cannot abide by.
Trading Places was directed by John Landis, who notably helmed some of the period’s best comedies (Coming To America, National Lampoon’s Animal House). Not unlike another Landis film, Blues Brothers, the movie has a host of cameos. Bo Diddley, Jim Belushi, Al Franken, and Frank Oz are all featured in bit parts.
Landis’ main coup was directing Murphy, who was entering his prime as a comedy legend at the time. The film would not have been the same without his energetic balance of wit and slapstick. Certain scenes, such as his scheme as a homeless veteran, are moments that only Murphy can master.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
(***Spoilers***) M. Night Shyamalan’s second movie after graduating film school turned into the second-highest grossing movie of 1999. The banner year at the box office saw a range of sensations like The Blair Witch Project and The Mummy, but The Sixth Sense was an anomaly for the year. It was the only film in the top five grossing films to not be incorporated with (or start) a franchise. How did a mid-range budget horror film turn into one of the biggest hits of the year?
Answer: with one of the biggest twist endings of all-time. The final reveal that Bruce Willis’ character has been dead since the film’s beginning was one of the most discussed film moments of the year and has endured as one of the truly masterful finishes in cinematic history.
The film is a classic three-act magic trick. Not only does Shyamalan reveal the ending early on in The Sixth Sense, but Haley Joel Osment’s iconic “I see dead people” line is an early turn that masks the conclusion. The final reveal hits like a hammer. It was present the whole time and yet very few people saw it coming. This ending is something that a movie with lesser direction may have given away or seemed laste minute. Shyamalan has tried to incorporate this with varying levels of success in future films, but the director’s low profile in 1999 allowed for the perfect opportunity to shock audiences with his signature hidden ending.
In addition to terrific work from Willis and Osment, there is a footnote to The Sixth Sense that people from outside the Delaware Valley may not pick up. Boston, New York, and Chicago are well-known for their regional dialect, something that is explored in countless films. A heavy Philly accent is much harder to replicate. More often than not, the regional dialect is portrayed as generic mid-Atlantic. The perpetually underrated Toni Collette masters the accent as well as any outsider and is convincingly Philly.
The bicentennial film won Best Picture at the Oscars in a top-heavy year. In addition to Rocky, three other films (Network, All The President’s Men,Taxi Driver) also made the AFI Top 100 list. The film endures because of its longshot story, sharp script, and innovative cinematography. While the sequels have watered down the accomplishments of the original, Rocky is undoubtedly one of the best sports films ever made.
The story is uniquely Philadelphia. The film about someone who is not just another bum from the neighborhood feeds the city’s underdog mentality. Not only does it embody Philadelphia. It is the type of movie that people from the City of Brotherly Love want to be associated with. Sylvester Stallone, a Philly native, used his hometown as a brilliant setting for the premise. His familiarity allowed him to tap into something deep as he captures the vibe of Philadelphia with perfection.
Boxing movies frequently stand out because of the storytelling device of two combatants duking it out in an enclosed setting. The films are an emotional struggle that embrace humans in a raw form as they try to survive blow after blow. There is also unusual humanity in Rocky. The Rocky-Adrian love story is as atypical as a boxer with turtles “Cuff” and “Link.” Balboa’s drive for respect, not victory, is relatable to anyone who makes it out of a tough situation.
Rocky was one of the first films to utilize the Steadicam, a type of camera that stabilizes shots in motion. The game-changing camera was developed by Philadelphia-area native Garrett Brown and was used in fellow 1976 movies Marathon Man and Bound For Glory. Despite this placement in other films, the defining moment for the Steadicam remains the camera’s shadowing of Stallone as he runs the Art Museum steps.
The eight films in the franchise have experienced various degrees of success. Rocky II was a fine film, but the pretense of artistry is gone in the middle rounds of the series. Starting with Rocky Balboa, Stallone found a writing groove that excelled over three movies. The best of these movies is Creed, the first in an offshoot of the franchise with Michael B. Jordan as the son of Rocky’s former nemesis. Directed by Ryan Coogler, Creed uses long shot photography in inventive ways that make the franchise an unlikely showcase for unique cinematography.
About the Author: John Saeger is a music and film writer from Philadelphia. Since 2017 he has been writing his pop-culture blog Long After Dark, a site dedicated to the arts in the City of Brotherly Love and beyond. Email / Twitter