Tuesday, July 2, 2013

San Francisco: Always Ready for its Close-Up

Last week I spent some time in Hitchcock territory. Visiting Sonoma County’s Bodega Bay under drizzly skies, I thought of how the Master of Suspense made dramatic use of this small seaside town in The Birds. I didn’t get to the old Spanish mission, San Juan Bautista, where the breathtaking climax of Vertigo was shot, but a drive through the streets of San Francisco reminded me of the mysterious Madeleine Elster’s Nob Hill digs, as well as the venerable museum where she visited the portrait of the equally mysterious Carlotta.  

San Francisco, it seems, was made for the movie camera. Its hills and winding byways (including the famously crooked Lombard Street) have provided locations for many a chase scene. On one of my first visits to the City by the Bay, I discovered that Hollywood had come calling: crowds had gathered to watch the filming of a sequence from Experiment in Terror, a 1962 thriller starring Lee Remick and Glenn Ford. I can’t begin to count all the creepy flicks set in San Francisco. But they include everything from The Maltese Falcon (1947) to The Conversation (1974) to the Donald Sutherland remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) to Pacific Heights (1990). A fine little drama produced by Stanley Kramer, The Sniper (1952) has a police psychologist tracking a homicidal maniac across the city’s rooftops. And who can forget Steve McQueen rocketing up the hills and zooming around the hairpin turns to Twin Peaks in that 1968 action gem, Bullitt?

In the late 1960s, San Francisco was the setting for Summer of Love films in which young people either rejoiced in their freedom or succumbed to its excesses, depending on the filmmaker’s point of view. Director Richard Lester, shooting Petulia (1968), tricked out his turgid tale of domestic violence by introducing as background players a lot of stoner-hippie types muttering non-sequiturs like ““Hey, can you direct us to a Chinese restaurant?” and “Give me back my sardines!”  Also in 1968, Dick Clark tried conveying the dangerous enticements that Haight-Ashbury offered to young people, saying, “There was a culture. But there was no movie about it. So we dreamed up a movie and I sold it to AIP.” The result is Psych-Out, in which a pony-tailed Jack Nicholson wears love-beads, a very young Henry Jaglom tries to cut off his hand during a bad drug trip, and Bruce Dern in a really bad wig plays a religious freak whose mantra is “God is alive and well in a sugar cube.”  Oh, those dangerous Flower Children! I’m sure Clark made a tidy sum luring in youth audiences and then preaching a fire-and-brimstone sermon against their lifestyle.

A far more nuanced view of the people of San Francisco appears in the 2008 biopic, Milk. Sean Penn won an Oscar for playing Harvey Milk, the gay activist who was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, only to be gunned down by a former colleague. What I remember best about the film, outside of some outstanding performances, are glimpses of San Francisco’s majestic City Hall as well as a dramatic candlelight vigil in which thousands gathered in support of their fallen leader. November 27, 1978 was a terrible day for San Francisco’s large gay community. It so happens that on the day when I passed through the city -- June 26, 2013 -- the big news headline was the U.S. Supreme Court’s dismissal of California’s Proposition 8. The court’s decision effectively lifted the ban on gay marriage in the Golden State, giving America’s most picturesque city something big to cheer about.


  1. It's always been a glorious city on film. You list some great examples. I will list a few more of my faves: Dirty Harry, The Laughing Policeman, A View to a Kill, Zodiac (2007), Star Trek-The Motion Picture, Time After Time (1979), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and The Zodiac Killer (1971) - which seems on the surface to be a batcrap crazy exploitation movie made to cash in on the crimes - which were still on the front burner at the time. And it is that - but behind the scenes - it was made by first time filmmaker Tom Hanson trying to catch the real Zodiac Killer - by coaxing him into the movie theater (the only one showing it in San Francisco at the time) as Hanson knew the real killer would never be able to resist. There's a fascinating interview with Hanson over at a website called Temple of Schlock - and while I'm sure some of what Hanson says has been clouded by ego and memory - it's still an amazing tale. Skip the movie - it's not pertinent in the end - but take a look at this if you're interested:



  2. Thanks, Mr. Craig. I'll check it out in my copious spare time. Thanks too for reminding me about the lovely Time After Time, a classic time-travel movie, which also launched the real-life romance of Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen. It's also the only movie I know of in which H.G. Wells chases Jack the Ripper through modern day San Francisco.