I had the great fortune to grow up across the bay from one of the world's most beautiful and revered cities, San Francisco. I've also spent much of my adult life a half hour away from what we affectionately refer to in these parts as The City. I've also gotten to see a lot of the San Francisco in movies. It's always fun to see familiar environs in a movie, or to walk around places you've seen in movies. I believe it safe to assert that no other U.S. city save New York has been highlighted in so many films.
The Bay and Golden Gate Bridges, Alcatraz Island, the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, the innumerable hills and colorful neighborhoods serve to enhance any film shot here. Since the days of the California Gold Rush, San Francisco has drawn poets, novelists, bohemians, beatniks, hippies and anyone looking for an alternative life style. This ain't Kansas, pal. The beat poets were here, the Summer of Love was here and the epicenter of the Gay Rights movement was here.
San Francisco thus adds a colorful history to its gorgeous look. No wonder so many films of such a great variety over so many years have been filmed here. There is a hypnotic quality to The City. It's like that beautiful dame you fall for who tells you straight out she's trouble but you don't care. She's somehow different and you'll put up with anything to get to to know her. Forget understanding her though, that's beyond you. Just be glad you're along for the ride.
Here I offer a list of ten films not only set in San Francisco but in which The City By The Bay plays a central part. I've tried to offer a variety of types of films from a range of directors and including some of Hollywood's greatest stars. From Jimmy Stewart to Sean Penn, from Frank Sinatra to Mark Ruffalo, from Humphrey Bogart to Woody Allen. Just to give a sense of how many fine films have been shot in SF, I offer another 16 titles after this list. Trust me, there's more.
Vertigo (1958). The quintessential San Francisco film. The City is all over this masterpiece from Alfred Hitchcock. There's Nob Hill, there's the Golden Gate Bridge, there's Lombard Street. There are Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in one of the greatest films ever made. The best of the many films set in San Francisco that features an obsessed character.
The Maltese Falcon (1941). Based on Dashiell Hammet's novel. Hammet lived and set many of his writings in San Francisco. The MF's protagonist was detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) whose agency was based in The City. Though much of it was shot on Warner Brothers back lots, you certainly get a feel for mid 20th century San Francisco, hard boiled detective film noir style.
Play it Again, Sam (1972).Though technically not a Woody Allen because he didn't direct, Allen wrote it and was the featured player. San Francisco costarred along with Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts. A hilarious movie about a divorced man obsessed with emulating Bogie, Play it Again, Sam portended even better to come from Allen.
The Conversation (1974). For whatever reason San Francisco is an ideal locale for obsessed characters and The Conversation's Harry Caul is damn near loco with obsession. Various SF locales are featured starting with a wonderful opening scene in Union Square. See this recent post for more on the film.
Zodiac (2007) .Watch San Francisco's growth from 1969 through the early 80s. Watch a city gripped by fear of a publicity hungry serial killer. This is a movie that brings back memories. We were all a little nervous about the Zodiac killer, even this generally courageous writer. Zodiac is a criminally underrated (pun intended) film featuring three stars at their top of their game, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo, all playing real life men. A cartoonist obsessed (what-I-tell-ya-bout obsessive characters in SF movies?) with finding the self proclaimed Zodiac killer, a reporter and a cop, respectively. The cop, David Toschi, influenced police characters in two other SF based films, Bullitt and Dirty Harry.
Milk (2008). Here's your introduction to San Francisco's Castro District which in the 1970s became a gay haven for men from across the country. Their political voice was Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man in the U.S. elected to public office. This is his story and Sean Penn's brilliant performance along with a stellar supporting cast and of course SF itself make it a terrific film. The candlelight march scene is unforgettable.
Barbary Coast (1935). San Francisco in the immediate aftermath of the Gold Rush. A wide open, dangerous town rife with gamblers, cheats, hookers, thugs and rogues of all description. You don't really get an accurate picture of how wild and wholly not to mention dangerous it was from this film, but you do get one especially nasty Edward G. Robinson (with an ear ring no less). There's a meaner than a polecat Brian Donlevy too along with some vigilante justice, of the hanging variety. Miriam Hopkins as a fallen woman and straight as an arrow Joel McCrea provide the love interest.
Bullitt (1968). Worth it for the car chase through the streets of San Francisco alone. Worth it for Steve McQueen alone. Worth it because it's one helluva good cop picture, even if the story doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Filmed all over San Fransisco. Recalls for me memories of the non Haight-Ashbury side of the city in the late 60s.
Pal Joey (1957). Two of the greatest together: San Francisco and Sinatra! As a bonus you get Kim Novak *sigh* and Rita Hayworth. The story is a slight cut above most 50s musical, comedy, romances. You get to see San Francisco and hear Sinatra -- in the same movie! How cool is that!
San Francisco (1936). With a title like that how could it not be on this list? Plus it's Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy and the 1906 earthquake. Actually there's only what IMDb calls, background footage, shot in San Francisco but the film provides a good if somewhat sanitized look at early 20th century San Francisco. The quake scenes are surprisingly good, at least in terms of cinema if not accuracy.
Not enough San Francisco films for you? Try these on for size: After the Thin Man (1936), Greed (1924), Gentleman Jim (1942), Dirty Harry (1971), Dark Passage (1947), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), Double Harness (1933), Foul Play (1978), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), The Lady From Shanghai (1948), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Time After Time (1979), Experiment in Terror (1962), Sudden Fear (1952), Take the Money and Run (1969) and What's Up Doc? (1972).