Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” 1993. (©Photos 12/Alamy)
The top of a grand, tiered staircase in Pacific Heights' Alta Plaza Park provides a wonderful vantage point to take in views of San Francisco and the bay. While walking up the steps, note the scarring in the concrete. That is no ordinary damage. Those steps are part of a wild chase scene in “What's Up, Doc?,” Peter Bogdanovich's 1972 screwball comedy starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal as innocents caught up in intrigue. A parody of the famous pursuit in the crime drama “Bullitt,” the chase includes the disruption of a Chinatown parade and a dunk in the San Francisco Bay. It is almost another star of this film as it showcases the city's alluring hills.
San Francisco has been starring in the movies since the silent era, most notoriously in 1924 when director Erich von Stroheim insisted shooting in real locations when he made “Greed,” his legendary adaptation of Frank Norris' novel “McTeague: A Story of San Francisco.” The Hayes Valley neighborhood, now a stylish district of restaurants and shops, was a principal location in this harrowing tale of a dentist brought low by alcoholism and avarice.
Since von Stroheim's time, San Francisco has continued to exert a pull on filmmakers attracted to its natural beauty, commanding views, and unique architecture. It was here that Alfred Hitchcock made “Vertigo” (1958), his classic romantic thriller starring James Stewart as a retired San Francisco detective obsessed with doppelgangers played by Kim Novak. “Vertigo” is, perhaps, the film to best take advantage of its setting with locations that include Fort Point in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, Mission Dolores, the Palace of Fine Arts and the Legion of Honor. Stewart's apartment at 900 Lombard St. is a block from “the crookedest street in the world” (although locals know that honor really goes to Vermont Street between 20th and 22nd Streets).
For Clint Eastwood, San Francisco has been a place to operate on both sides of the law. In “Dirty Harry” (1971), the movie that started a franchise, Eastwood is a cop pursuing a serial killer, taking the chase to Dolores Park, Washington Square, Saints Peter and Paul Church in North Beach, Alamo Square (home to the famous “painted ladies” row of Victorian houses), Kezar Stadium and other memorable locations. Then in “Escape from Alcatraz” (1979), he is a convict plotting a prison break in this drama filmed on the fabled rock.
In the 1940s and '50s, San Francisco was ground zero for some of the greatest film noirs. Private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) pursues his partner's killer in “Maltese Falcon” (1941) and from his vantage point on Bush Street on Nob Hill, he can watch the construction of the Stockton Street Tunnel connecting Union Square to Chinatown. In “Dark Passage” (1947), escaped convict Vincent Parry (Bogart) walks the Filbert Steps (where today one can find the flock made famous in the 2003 documentary “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill”) and hides out in the stunning Art Deco apartment building at 1360 Montgomery St. Eli Wallach is a hired gun on the prowl in “The Lineup” (1958), an odyssey that takes him to the Mark Hopkins Hotel, the Steinhart Aquarium and the old Sutro Baths next door to the Cliff House.
The Summer of Love spawned “Psych-Out” (1968), an exploitation freak-out starring pre-stardom Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern as hippies in Haight-Ashbury. San Francisco's long-standing military base (originally established by the Spanish in 1776) inspired “The Presidio” (1988), a murder mystery starring Mark Harmon and Sean Connery. Since de-commissioned, the base is now a national park as well as the home of the Walt Disney Family Museum. Local legend met local landmark in “Mrs. Doubtfire”(1993), as late San Francisco resident Robin Williams, playing an actor who dons the disguise of a middle-aged British lady to play nanny to his own children, rides the Hyde Street cable car in the family comedy that was shot all over San Francisco and the bay, including Pacific Heights, North Beach and Oakland's Jack London Square. Gus Van Sant recreated the pioneering days of the gay liberation movement with the Oscar-winning “Milk” (2008), a drama starring Sean Penn that meticulously recreated 1970s Castro Street, right down to restoring the historic Castro Theatre’s neon sign.
More recently, Woody Allen returned to the city where he shot his second feature “Take the Money and Run” (1969) to make “Blue Jasmine” (2013). Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for playing a woman on the brink of madness in a comedy/drama filmed all over the city, including the Mission, Ocean Beach, West Portal the Haight-Ashbury's exotic Zam Zam bar and venerable waterfront restaurant The Ramp in the city's Dogpatch neighborhood.
Clearly, San Francisco has worked its spell on Allen, not the first or the last filmmaker to discover what every San Franciscan knows and what every visitor discovers: The place is magic.