By Craig Leask
This is the first of a planned series of articles on great cities in the movies. This one will focus on The City by The Bay, San Francisco. San Francisco is one of those cities which has been immortalized throughout the years: in song – Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” (1962), Richard Harris’s “MacArthur Park” (1968); on televisison – The Doris Day Show (1968 – 1973), McMillan & Wife (1971-1977), The Streets of San Francisco (1972-1977); and of course, in the movies. There are a great number of movies in which the city is featured as a character – starting with San Francisco (1936) with Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, and Spencer Tracey, a musical drama centered around the 1906 earth quake. There is also Bullitt (1968) starring Steve McQueen and his fastback mustang racing through the streets of the city, and numerous others.
The following is just a sampling of the many films situated in San Francisco, that show off that city in all of its glory – this my top 10 list if you will, in no particular order.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The Maltese Falcon, John Huston’s directorial debut, is considered a Film Noir masterpiece and the film that made Humphrey Bogart a true star. It is also the movie which perfectly defines old San Francisco in the movies. In 1941, filming on location was practically unheard of, however Huston includes a number of authentic establishing shots around San Francisco. In fact, a plaque has been installed in the alley by the Stockton Street tunnel identifying the location where Sam Spade’s (Humphrey Bogart) partner, Miles Archer, was murdered (as well as identifying the one unknown in the movie by giving away the movie’s ending and revealing the killer).
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) starring Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart is possibly the greatest San Francisco movie of all time, due to the many famous landmarks the director included in his movie. Vertigo centers around Scottie (Stewart) following the troubled Madeleine (Novak) as she follows the ghost of her great-grandmother around the city of San Francisco. Location shots including The Fort Point National Historic Site, where Madeleine takes her suicidal plunge into the bay; The Legion of Honor, the gallery where Madeleine visits the portrait of her great-grandmother; the Coit Tower which can be seen through Scottie’s Lombard Street window; the Palace of Fine Arts where Scottie and Judy Barton (Novak) stroll by the lagoon, and the Mission Dolores Cemetery where Madeleine visits her great-grandmothers grave, to name just a few of the many locations featured in the film. The brilliance of Hitchcock’s direction is notable in one, mainly silent scene. The scene where Scottie follows Madeleine for the first time. Very little action occurs, but the atmosphere of suspense he creates is enough to keep you stressed in the anticipation of what follows.
What’s Up Doc? (1972)
As mentioned below in the passage on Foul Play, I was hooked on that movie from the opening shots. With What’s Up Doc?, I have to admit it is one of my all-time favourite comedies and for me surpasses Foul Play. It will be one of those movies I take to that mythical desert island that everyone talks about. What’s Up, Doc? is a comedy starring Barbra Streisand as Judy Maxwell, a very knowledgeable woman who seems to worm her way into a number of awkward situations which form the basis of the movie’s plot. Ryan O’Neal is the unfortunate recipient of her attention. Ryan O’Neal really demonstrates the ability to match Streisand line for line and delivers a believable match for her, demonstrating great chemistry between the two actors. The story is based in San Francisco, and centers around the mix up of a number of identical plaid bags which all end up misplaced and redistributed among their owners at the Hotel Bristol, an elegant downtown hotel. Through happenstance and in true comic farce, each of the bags are lost and found as the characters involved attempt to find and retrieve their original bags or those bags that may or may not contain what they’re hoping to find inside: jewels; top secret documents; priceless minerals; etc. Madeline Kahn, in her film debut, as Eunice Burns truly steals the film. One simply needs to take in her performance as as O’Neal’s annoying and controlling fiancé to understand her pure comic genius in a role that could only have been made for her. The connection to San Francisco is evident throughout the movie, but never more prevalent than in the chase scenes which have often been replicated, but never as successfully as in this movie.
Foul Play (1978)
Without revealing too much bias, I have to declare first off I was hooked on Foul Play from the beginning shots of the cast at a waterfront house party with clear views of The Golden Gate Bridge. Follow this with the opening credits and an aerial shot as it follows the lead, Gloria Mundy (Goldie Hawn) driving her classic yellow VW bug along the Pacific Coast Highway to Barry Manilow’s “Ready to Take a Chance Again”. This truly does make me happy. Goldie is at her quirky and innocently beautiful best, Dudley Moore as Stanley Tibbets has never been better as he plays an oversexed Englishman attempting to seduce Gloria, and Chevy Chase as officer Tony Carlson is great as the flippant cop with an over protective eye on Goldie. Add to this a missing Cardinal, a murderous albino, a dwarf, and numerous car chases throughout the streets of San Francisco and you have created a great movie. All in all, Foul Play with its great cast, is a great intertwining murder mystery comedy which can have only been successfully executed in the 1970’s. Most importantly, Foul Play utilizes the streets and landmarks of San Francisco to the point that it is almost impossible to imagine this film being situated anywhere else. San Francisco is authentically portrayed as a large city, and one of a very human scale. Shot on location, the settings add to and support the realism and the tension of the plot. The foot chases through the hills and staircases of the city’s core to the seedy bars and brothels are all real and that comes across authentically in the film. Director Colin Higgins understood the pace required to emulate the madcap comedies he was copying and appreciated the role the city of San Francisco needed to play in the film.
Most large cities have iconic or signature buildings and landmarks, and Hollywood just loves to come in and demolish them: through natural disasters, man’s arrogance, or genetic mutations. San Francisco with its Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower and TransAmerica Pyramid, has plenty of landmarks Hollywood just could not wait to destroy.
The Towering Inferno (1974)
Although San Francisco is known for its penchant for earthquakes, it’s biggest disaster film instead focuses on a fire, not just any fire, but a fire which starts on the 81st floor of a 137 story, 1800-foot-tall skyscraper. Of course, at the time of the fire, a celebration is underway on the 135th floor, hosting the mayor, senators and numerous other dignitaries for the building’s dedication. Producer Irwin Allen, having achieved great success with The Poseidon Adventure (1972), approached The Towering Inferno project with an eye on topping the success of that film. With an unheard of budget of $14 million (the production budget for The Poseidon Adventure was $5 million) Allen secured Paul Newman and Steve McQueen to headline and a supporting cast of A list stars (Fred Astaire, Faye Dunaway, William Holden and others). The film grossed $116 million dollars and won Oscars for Cinematography, Editing and Original Song and was nominated in another 5 categories. Despite the number of A List actors, the true star of The Towering Inferno of course is the disaster itself. The building used as “The Glass Tower”, which is billed in the film as the world’s tallest skyscraper, was 555 California Street, known at the time as the Bank of America Centre and was used predominantly for the exterior shots. The 52-story office tower was supplemented with matte paintings to add the additional stories required for the film. 555 California Street was also used in the opening of the 1971 Clint Eastwood film Dirty Harry; the 1981 Chuck Norris film An Eye for an Eye, and the 2015 Dwayne Johnson Film San Andreas.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Based upon the ape vs. man premises – Planet of the Apes (1968), Beneath The Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971), Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) etc. Although not as admired as its prequels, this new launch of the franchise relied heavily on CGI and Motion Capture Technology in its animation of the primates. The success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes led to the 2014 follow-up sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the 2017 War for the Planet of the Apes also set in San Francisco, but all films were actually shot in Vancouver, Canada.
The 2014 version of Godzilla was centered on a beast uniquely called “MUTO” (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) which originates in the Janjira nuclear power plant in Japan. The MUTO traverses the globe ending up in San Francisco, where he battles Godzilla, knocking out buildings and eventually, the Golden Gate Bridge (as opposed to the 1998 Godzilla where the giant lizard destroys New York City and The Brooklyn Bridge). Ever notice that these nuclear anomalies never end up in some unremarkable town in an out of the way state like New Mexico (although those are the places that UFO’s tend to frequent)? Although a large component of the movie is set in San Francisco, the film was actually shot in Canada.
Between 1934 and 1963, the 22-acre Alcatraz Island contained America’s toughest high-security prison. Located in San Francisco Bay 1.25 miles off the coast of San Francisco, the island was initially named “Isla de Alcatraces” by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, which translates to Island of the Pelicans. This iconic island was featured in its own series of films based on true and fictional plot lines.
Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
Birdman of Alcatraz is based on a true story. In 1912, Robert Franklin Stroud (Burt Lancaster) is convicted of murder and transferred to the Leavenworth Prison. At Leavenworth, a sparrow falls from his nest and into the prison yard where Stroud finds him and nurtures him back to life, this gives him a focus and purpose. A series of events (stabbing and killing a guard, etc.) causes Stroud to be transferred to Alcatraz where he is remanded into solitary confinement and not permitted to have pets. The movie broaches a serious discussion of thoughtful issues: the death penalty, the role of the prison system and the value of a man, no matter how much he does not fit into society. Portions of Birdman of Alcatraz were filmed on location on Alcatraz Island.
Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
Escape from Alcatraz tells the true story of Frank Morris, (Clint Eastwood), charged with armed robbery and sentenced to life imprisonment. Having escaped from a number of prisons, Morris is sent to Alcatraz, which was well known for being inescapable. This film tells the story of the famous escape of three prisoners Morris, Clarence Anglin, and John Anglin (brothers also incarcerated for bank robbery). The movie provides an accurate account of life within the walls of the famous prison. In the movie, Morris is accurately depicted as the architect of an escape plan which took some seven months to orchestrate, requiring the extensive fabrication of decoys and gear required for survival in the frigid, shark infested waters which surround the island. A good portion of the movie was filmed on site, utilizing Alcatraz Island as a character in the film.
The Rock (1996)
Following a different and more fantastic plot than the nearly biographical depiction of Alcatraz in Escape from Alcatraz (1979), The Rock was an early terrorist movie based upon the fictional takeover of Alcatraz Island by marine General Francis Xavier Hummel (Ed Harris). Hummel is armed with stolen VX gas warheads which he is threatening to launch into San Francisco, while holding 81 tourists who were unfortunate enough to have chosen that day to be touring the prison. Stanley Goodspeed (Nicholas Cage) is brought in as he is an expert in disarming warheads and John Patrick Mason (Sean Connery) is on the scene due to his extensive knowledge of the layout of the prison. As with Escape from Alcatraz, The Rock was filmed on Alcatraz Island incorporating the prison and surroundings in the production.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.