Discover San Francisco’s cinematic haunts
San Francisco, located a one-hour flight north of Hollywood, has often played the edgier, quirkier cousin to its sunny southern neighbour Los Angeles. It’s here that Clint Eastwood roughed up the audience in Dirty Harry, Jimmy Stewart dove into the Golden Gate Strait to rescue Kim Novak in Vertigo, and Robin Williams swatted off a pickpocket with a purse in Mrs. Doubtfire. Since the 1920s the city has been depicted in hundreds of films.
“San Francisco provided Hollywood with a look and feel totally different from Los Angeles while being only 400 miles away – one could truck a film cast and crew up here for a couple of weeks without breaking the bank,” says Eddie Muller, local author and founder of the popular Noir City Film Festival.
“Directors have loved that so many diverse ‘looks’ are right next to each other; point the camera east and you get a shot of skyscrapers shining in the sun, point it west and you’ve got tract homes on steep hills getting swallowed up in fog.”
Muller notes that the most photographed intersection in San Francisco, at least where movies are concerned, is the corner of Union and Montgomery streets on Telegraph Hill. Stand in one spot, turn 360 degrees, and you’re seeing locations used in Dark Passage, Vertigo, The Sniper, House on Telegraph Hill, The Midnight Story, Dirty Harry… and the list goes on.
Film immersion x 4
Chasing the falcon
The historical restaurant of John’s Grill appeared in Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon that inspired the iconic film starring Humphrey Bogart. Rubbing elbows with tourists and old-timers, one can listen to the clinking of dessert wine glasses and the blast of the hot milk steamer from behind the bar. Order a dozen oysters and a serving of liver with smoked bacon and caramelized onions – in old Hollywood style. Reservations are recommended.
“They used to say you were nobody in San Francisco unless you were kicked out of the Zam,” says San Francisco Movie Tours guide and actress AJ Davenport. Opened in 1941, Zam Zam became renowned for its dry martinis and owner Bruno Mooshei, who died in 2000. “If you started telling him how to make a martini, you were out of there,” Davenport adds. Recently it appeared in Woody Allen’s film Blue Jasmine (2013). Pick a seat at the curved bar, put away your smartphone, and listen to locals reminisce about the way tech millionaires have changed the city.
Alamo Drafthouse, focusing on both quality films and a quality movie experience (food and drinks are served, the chairs are cosy and no onscreen ads are shown), has several locations around the US. Before or after the movie, pay a visit to Lost Weekend Video in the lobby. It’s a local institution whose cinephile employees can help you pick out a new or classic film – or a book on movies.
San Francisco Movie Tours offers a three-hour cinematic ride through the city’s varied neighbourhoods – scenes from dozens of films are featured, from Daydreams (1922) to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). “This has evolved into a city tour that just happens to have 70+ film locations in it,” says owner Bryan Rice. “I appreciate how similar the city looks compared to [the way it was depicted] 50 years ago. Maybe it used to be edgier, but San Francisco is still a place where anything goes.”
Essential San Franciscan flicks
On screen the Golden Gate Bridge has been mauled by Godzilla, scaled by apes and levitated by a super-villain, but perhaps its most memorable turn is bearing witness to Kim Novak’s suicide attempt in Alfred Hitchcock’s acclaimed film. The city’s inclines, shadowy corners and plunging shorelines play up Vertigo’s disorienting mood.
The Conversation (1974)
Francis Ford Coppola’s portrait of ’70s paranoia depicts San Francisco as dense and claustrophobic. As Gene Hackman’s private investigator becomes obsessed with a secret conversation held in the bustle of Union Square, the viewer is driven to decode the character’s demons.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
This story of an actor disguising himself as his children’s nanny to cope with his divorce has disturbing undertones, but Robin Williams’s deeply felt performance gives this comedy its heart. After his death in 2014, the stoop of the family’s fictional home at 2640 Steiner Street became a place for locals to pay their respects.
Inside Out (2015)
A preteen girl’s move to San Francisco sets the stage for Pixar’s animated hit about the emotions – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust – that guide our lives. The film depicts both the curiosities of the city (crooked, winding streets, and broccoli-topped pizza!) and its majesty (a drive across the gleaming Golden Gate Bridge).
Text Laura Palotie
Photos Aaron Bawol