“San Francisco has only one drawback – it is hard to leave“, once said Rudyard Kipling, and it is very easy to see the city’s glorious appeal: situated on hills and surrounded by a vast bay, it looks almost like some fairy-tale land with its jaw-dropping landmarks, including the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island, Victorian houses, cable cars and one tricky climate. Likewise, film-makers have not been immune to its charms: from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), The Conversation (1974) and Dirty Harry (1971) to Joy Luck Club (1993), House of Sand and Fog (2003) and Zodiac (2007), a San Francisco story puts a spell on the audience like few American stories do, and scores of film-makers continue returning to the city to capture on film its vibrantly diverse and unique qualities. Below are 7 films that showcase San Francisco.
I. Vertigo 
Obviously, Vertigo leads my list as this masterpiece from Alfred Hitchcock is probably the most famous film shot in San Francisco. In this story, ex-Detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) is tasked to trail Madeleine (Kim Novak), the wife of his acquaintance. Madeleine’s strange behaviour, including her interest in her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, soon starts to perplex Scottie, as mysteries pile up and his obsession with the woman grows.
As with some notable Hitchcock films, including Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), most people do not even realise that these famous cinematic creations are actually based on either previously published plays, short stories or books, and Vertigo is no exception. Its story is adaptation of French novel From Among the Dead (1954) by the duo of thriller masters Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (Boileau-Narcejac). As Scottie follows Madeleine through San Francisco, we visit many streets and see many sights. Madeleine lives at the Brocklebank Apartments at 1000 Mason Street, and Scottie’s pursuit takes him to Mission Dolores, the oldest building in the city, on Dolores Street, to Lincoln Park, as well as to an Ancient and European Art Gallery at the Palace of the Legion of Honor and to downtown Union Square, among so many other sights and streets. The famous shot of the Golden Gate Bridge in the film was taken from the Fort Point area, and the oldest operating flower shop in the city, Podesta Baldocchi (now Marc Rovetti’s online business), is also featured.
II. Blue Jasmine 
A twist on A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Woody Allen’s comedy-drama tells of Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), a New York socialite fallen on hard times. She goes to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a supermarket clerk, in San Francisco, and even goes on an informal “tourist tour” there with her new friends, taking in the sights of Chinatown, and sipping drinks at the Ramp waterfront restaurant in Mission Bay.
Ginger lives in the Mission District (305 South Van Ness Avenue), and the film also features Union Square, Ocean Beach, as well as such establishments as the Casa Lucas Market (Ginger’s working place), and Aub Zam Zam bar (now Zam Zam bar) on Haight Street, Haight-Ashbury district (where Jasmine has a date), among other locations. Blanchett’s performance in recent film Tar was outstanding, but, arguably, her Academy Award-winning performance in Blue Jasmine was just as good.
III. Days of Wine and Roses 
People tend to forget that this tragic story is also a San Francisco story. In this film by Blake Edwards, Jack Lemmon plays a “happy-go-lucky” public relations man Joe who meets and falls in love with Kirsten (Lee Remick). Joe introduces Kirsten to his way of life that involves plenty of social drinking via a chocolaty cocktail Brandy Alexander, and, soon, rather than having an idyllic family life, the new couple is leading one hellish booze-driven lifestyle that starts to spiral out of control.
Joe and Kirsten first proper meeting takes places near and inside the offices of Kirsten’s employment, which is the Pacific Gas and Electric Building at 245 Market Street, and further film scenes show us Union Street, Telegraph Hill, Maiden Lane and panoramic Pacific Heights (Joe and Kirsten’s home are at 1800 Pacific Avenue), among other locations.
IV. When a Man Loves a Woman 
It is funny how not one but two stories of alcoholism ended up on this list of “San Francisco” films. When a Man Loves a Woman is a romantic drama and a San Francisco film through and through. It tells of Michael and Alice’s married life when Michael (Andy Garcia), an airline pilot, finds out that Alice (Meg Ryan), a school counsellor, suffers from alcoholism. The effect of this revelation on their relationship and their two daughters is well-explored.
One of this film’s first scenes takes place on picturesque Hyde Street, through which Michael travels via a cable car and where he then enters a bar called “The Buena Vista” (2810 Hyde Street). His wife Alice awaits him there, and the duo then proceed to prank a guy sitting next to them into thinking they have just met. Their home is at 1521 Masonic Avenue (named after a Masonic cemetery), Haight-Ashbury district, and the film also features the Golden Gate Bridge, among some other streets and locations.
V. Bullitt 
Peter Yates’s film, starring Steve McQueen and Jacqueline Bisset as Cathy, tells of a police lieutenant (McQueen) protecting a key witness in a mafia investigation.
The film showcases one of the most intense car chase sequences in cinematic history and it takes place through the steep roads of San Francisco, passing through Fisherman’s Wharf, Chestnut Street, Hyde Street, Laguna Streets, and Leavenworth Street, among other locations. Cathy’s office in the story is also located on Montgomery Street, one café on Union Street, while other locations reveal plenty of Nob Hill and Russian Hill, as well as feature the San Francisco International Airport.
VI. Mrs. Doubtfire 
This film is one of my favourite “guilty pleasure” comedies. Robin Williams steals the show completely in this hilarious story of a dad-turned-nanny. Daniel (Williams) and Miranda (Sally Field) had a bitter divorce, and it so happens that Daniel is now only allowed sporadic family visits to see his children. However, he soon finds a solution to his problem as Miranda is looking for a strict, healthy-eating-conscious nanny for their three children.
The film is actually based on a novel for young adults by British author Anne Fine titled Madame Doubtfire (1987), and the main family home in the film is located at 2640 Steiner Street in fancy Pacific Heights with views to the bay, while Daniel’s apartment is at 520-522 Green Street, Telegraph Hill. There is also a lovely shot sequence in the film that shows the Golden Gate Bridge when Daniel (aka Mrs. Doubtfire) is having fun on bicycles with his children. The children and their new nanny are having their day out at Crissy Field, a public recreation area, among other featured locations, such as popular Columbus Avenue and iconic Hyde Street.
VII. The Last Black Man in San Francisco 
Joe Talbot’s debut is a film about Jimmie Fails, a young man stuck in a series of menial jobs, but dreaming of a better life and still attached to his old childhood home, which is now an expensive Victorian house in San Francisco. With the help of his loyal friend and aspiring playwright Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors), Jimmy is now prepared to do anything to try to reclaim it.
Narratively, it is not a perfect film, but it is still a moving, gorgeously-filmed story about the importance of home, friendship and never giving up. Its locations feature the John Coop House, designed by Henry Geilfuss and found at 959 South Van Ness Avenue, Fillmore district, Hunters Point Naval Shipyard and Bernal Heights Park, among other locations.
See also my other lists in this “Great Cities on Film” series: New York: 10 Films Illustrating the City, Paris: 10 Great Films Set in the City, & Rome: 10 “Must-See” Films Set in the City.
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And What’s Up Doc!
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Yes, thanks! I did mention it in my intro.