Having recently returned from another Bay-area visit with my bride, this time driving about more than usual since we also visited family further south, thought about the city. San Francisco has a rivalrous push-pull sentiment for any Angeleno visitor, me included. And don’t get me started on the much-hated Giants. Still, the metro has its charms as I learned decades ago when I initially came up one August to Baghdad by the Bay and learned firsthand what Mark Twain meant1:
“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”
At least this year, it provided us with a nice break from our hot L.A. summer and gave moi an excuse for another movie list. Haven’t done one in a while. And the picturesque bay, lurking fog, and hilly streets (so fun to drive…if you don’t have a clutch, that is), made me note the filmmakers who’ve taken advantage of them to stage some notable cinematic exploits around. As usual, will stick to my favorite number for compilation purposes and try to keep the focus on the city itself.
Honorable mentions: Well, there are always going to be tough decisions in a roll call like this, resulting in those left by the wayside. Have to draw the line somewhere. So, in no particular order the merits of the following are just short of, “The San Francisco treat.” And yeah, I know I’ll get grief for the more than a few here.
- D.O.A. (1950)
- Mrs. Doubtfire
- The Rock
- The Laughing Policeman
- The Game
- The Presidio
- Magnum Force
- The Enforcer
- The Maltese Falcon
- 48 Hrs.
- Basic Instinct
Big Trouble in Little China – Might as well kick this off with a John Carpenter/Kurt Russell classic. Granted, only a few shots of the actual notable district in “trouble” show up onscreen, but this next to last collaborative effort by the two make the oldest Chinatown in North America, and the largest enclave outside Asia, a greater attention-getter2 as it establishes a thoroughly mystical San Franciscan vibe.
Freebie and the Bean – Might as well keep that comedic mayhem going with an underrated Richard Rush film from my all-time favorite decade of cinema. The buddy/cop action comedy runs the gamut of racist, inappropriate sexist/homophobic jokes, and jaw dropping stunts and twists while bad boy cops3 break the law, criminal and traffic, as they scream about the city with abandon. Ah…just like the ’70s.
Star Trek IV – The Voyage Home – Switching genres, as San Francisco most certainly can handle with ease, the fourth Star Trek feature film utilized the city, along with its virtues and foibles, on a wonderfully grand scale. Humorous and heartfelt, director/cast member Leonard Nimoy and crew served up one of its best on the streets of you-know-where, staging the city with aplomb — just don’t mention certain scenes4.
Dark Passage – The third movie of the four starring Bogie and Bacall, this superb Delmer Daves production paired the fabulous couple with the City by the Bay in the midst of the film noir era. A showcase of the fine black & white photography the genre was known for, matched against Daves’ remarkable location shots that spotlit SF’s hilly landscape, architecture, and atmosphere. Manifesting one stylishly moody tale.
What’s Up Doc? – Back to Golden State humor in the glorious ’70s era, few flicks are as screwball funny as this Peter Bogdanovich work. His homage to comedy films of the ’30s, especially Bringing Up Baby and Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny cartoons, staged its slapstick around the notoriously fog-strewn city in bright sunshine. Plus, it proved you don’t need an automobile on San Fran’s hilly streets to thrill an audience.
The Conversation – Now, it wouldn’t be a complete ’70s San Francisco experience without some paranoiac suspense and intrigue offered up by this Francis Ford Coppola gem. Inspired by Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blowup, only got made care of the director’s success via The Godfather5. From the opening titles sequence to its final scene, privacy in this picturesque municipality never looked more in peril or precarious.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) – Might as well settle down and make a lack of privacy totally irrelevant with the only remake on this list. Director Phil Kaufman skillfully repositioned Don Siegel’s splendid original, set in the southland, to San Francisco. Replacing the Red Scare ’50s with good old ’70s government mistrust and dissolution, and engulfing Chinatown to Pacific Heights anew with sci-fi horror.
Experiment in Terror – As much as the previous on display by the bay have shown, the real heartbeat of the city, like my own, is best evinced in crime on celluloid. Too often forgotten when favorites are cataloged, Blake Edwards’ norishly surprising “experiment” has to be referenced6. From crossing the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to the culminating finale at Candlestick Park, few are cinematically suspenseful as this.
Time After Time – While it may look like I’ve already gone off the lawbreaking path with this sci-fi thriller by Nicholas Meyer as the ’70s closed out, definitely not. How could it with H.G. Wells pursuing a time-traveling Jack the Ripper to the future 20th Century “utopia”; where the serial murderer shows the writer he belongs “…here completely and utterly” with a bloody trail from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Richman District.
Zodiac – If there’s a contemporary film that captures the mood and utter angst set upon S.F in the late ’60s and early ’70s, while an unidentified serial killer terrorized NoCal with a murder spree, it’s director David Fincher’s best film. No mean feat to recreate the ambience of the true-life events through some well-known city locations in-between deploying rivalrous SoCal whereabouts we Angelenos more than recognize7.
Dirty Harry – A game-changer in more ways than one by Don Siegel that effectively used the unique reputation of the Paris of the West to base its dark crime thriller upon. With a jazzy score by Lalo Schifrin draping religious landmarks (St. Peter & Paul Church and The Cross at Mt. Davidson) and long gone edifices (old Kesar Stadium) with dangerous undertones, it defined the era as well as what a movie hero had become.
Vertigo – No movie list would be complete without including Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece that brought mystery and obsession to the precipitously dizzying heights of the city. San Francisco’s mélange of people and styles already guaranteed to off-balance visitors and natives alike. That is its draw, and in the hands of Hitchcock, the tale of a bayside protagonist is doomed from the very start in his quest to understand it all.
Bullitt – And if there’s been one film that has preoccupied me since junior high, like countless other moviegoers, it’s Peter Yates utterly cool piece of business from 1968. This is what kicked off of my love-hate relationship with San Francisco8. Yeah, the lure may have been my relatives waxing on McQueen and a dramatic car chase between a Mustang 390 GT and a Dodge Charger 440 Magnum pounding those hills five decades ago, but was hooked when Yates made this damn town an equally captivating character.
- Whether actually true or not, it sure fits Frisco. There, I said it. ↩
- This community is such a major tourist attraction that it draws more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge. ↩
- John Michael McDonagh tried to remake it with War on Everyone (2016), but at least he didn’t repeat inane casting (like Alan Arkin and Valerie Harper portraying “latinos”). ↩
- Los Angeles’ own Will Rogers State Historic Park stood in for S.F.’s Golden Gate Park for scenes where the cloaked Klingon Bird of Prey ship parked, not to mention some other SoCal locations standing in for S.F. — shh…don’t tell anybody. ;-) ↩
- Filming commenced in late 1972 and the movie was released in Los Angeles on April 7, 1974 — I tell ‘ya, this decade could do irony. ↩
- Plus, Experiment in Terror‘s Henry Mancini score is to die for. ↩
- From Culver City’s library and museum to the old National Theatre in Westwood Village, hell, even Ziegler’s Hardware store in my old South Gate neighborhood, this must irk some local Giants fans, so be sure not to tell them. ↩
- I will never ever complain of a lack of parking in my home town as driving in San Fran once more has shown me the error of my ways. ↩