Five Best San Francisco Movies

It's a tossup which of the two San Franciscos filmmakers embrace more frequently: the lovely, hilly backdrop of What's Up Doc? and Pal Joey or the fog-shrouded demimonde of Experiment in Terror and The Lady From Shanghai. With so many examples from each genre, selecting just a few outstanding San Francisco movies is difficult indeed: Consider Point Blank, Greed, The Days of Wine and Roses, Petulia, Dirty Harry, The Birdman of Alcatraz, The Maltese Falcon, and Star Trek 4 for starters. But the five films below capture the city's diverse essence especially well.

Vertigo (1958)

Few movies evoke San Francisco's wraithlike spirit and impassive beauty as well as Hitchcock's Vertigo. A man with a dizzying fear of heights becomes obsessed with a mysterious woman who is herself obsessed with the past: her spiritual forebear, a contessa who met a tragic end in San Francisco a century earlier. The story and its theme of restless, invasive phantoms is played out against the backdrop of hilly, vertiginous San Francisco, a city where sun-drenched graveyards, ancient redwoods, and troubled memories wreak havoc upon the living.

Bullitt (1968)

For those of us whose first exposure to San Francisco was during the 1960s, Bullitt is irresistibly evocative. Steve McQueen, the coolest star of the decade, plays a maverick cop who favors paisley pajamas and resides in a mod one-bedroom apartment at Taylor and Clay. At the film's center is The Chase Scene, a still-unmatched dazzler in which McQueen and his Mustang pursue their quarry up and over Russian Hill at breakneck speed. With its goofy camera angles, flashy editing, garish sideburns, and moody jazz score, this is one hip celluloid time capsule.

San Francisco (1936)

Despite its cornball MGM moralizing and creaky plot, San Francisco is really and truly about the city of the title. Local girl Anita Loos wrote the screenplay about a Board of Supervisors race between a Nob Hill snob and a Barbary Coast scalawag (Clark Gable). New Year's Eve revels at Lotta's Fountain, a boorish Los Angeleno, and dark ruminations over our sinful city's inevitable smiting add local verisimilitude. The eventual destruction (aka the 1906 firequake) is spectacular and rife with well-researched touches, and even Jeanette McDonald can't screw up our municipal anthem.

Dark Passage (1947)

Humphrey Bogart breaks out of San Quentin, gets some bargain-basement plastic surgery, and hides out in Lauren Bacall's totally deco Telegraph Hill apartment; the plot is ridiculous, but director Delmer Daves shoots his hometown with a native's appreciation. Fisticuffs at Fort Point, subterfuge at the Powell-Market turnaround, and a spectacular fall from a Russian Hill penthouse are among the film's highlights. Our favorite moment: Bogart staggering up the Filbert Steps like Lawrence crossing Arabia.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Phil Kaufman set his remake of the Jack Finney horror classic in 1970s San Francisco, and the city has never looked so unnervingly eerie. Alien life forms with an abhorrence of human emotion slowly but surely infiltrate the city by the bay, taking over the bodies and souls of its citizens. Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams talk like real San Franciscans, the first time this has occurred among actors in movie history. Denny Zeitlin's sound design is memorably spooky, and you'll never look at the trees in Civic Center Plaza the same way again.

 
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