When Steve McQueen tore through the streets of San Francisco in a Mustang GT in the 1968 film “Bullitt,” it was history in the making. The iconic chase scene would inspire countless other thrill rides on film (and perhaps a few McQueen wannabes in real life). But it was more than impossibly steep roads that made San Francisco the perfect setting for the film. Unique architecture, commanding views and natural beauty are assets that have made San Francisco the co-star, if not the lead character, in hundreds of films.
San Francisco had its first starring role in the silent era. In 1924 director Erich von Stroheim insisted on shooting on location (a difficult challenge at that time) 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. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was the location and inspiration for some of the greatest film noirs. Private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) pursues his partner's killer in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941). From his vantage point on Bush Street on Nob Hill, Spade watches the construction of the Stockton Street Tunnel connecting Union Square to Chinatown. In “Dark Passage” (1947), escaped convict Vincent Parry (Bogart again) walks the Filbert Steps and hides out in the stunning Art Deco apartment building at 1360 Montgomery St. Scenes from Orson Welles’ classic “The Lady from Shanghai” (1947) included Sausalito, the Steinhart Aquarium, Portsmouth Square and Chinatown; the famous hall of mirrors shootout took place at an amusement park in Ocean Park (although the scene was actually shot at the Columbia Studios). A Polish concentration camp survivor (Valentina Cortese) finds new perils await her in “The House on Telegraph Hill,” named for a mansion with commanding views of the bay. (Look closely at the Bay Bridge, and you will see the Key trains that used to traverse the span.) 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 movie that perhaps best takes advantage of San Francisco as its setting is Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), his classic romantic thriller starring James Stewart as a retired detective obsessed with doppelgangers played by Kim Novak. This haunting film, considered by many to be the best ever made, was shot at Fort Point in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, Mission Dolores, the Palace of Fine Arts and the Legion of Honor—even the apartment where Stewart's character lived is an actual address: 900 Lombard St.
Mission Dolores and “Vertigo” itself play key roles in Jenni Olson’s documentary essay, “The Royal Road” (2015), a meditation on nostalgia, desire, California’s Spanish history and the movies. Experimental in nature, the film is also an evocation of San Francisco’s recent past as Olson blends into her narrative film she shot all over the city over a more than 20-year time span. Capturing longtime landmarks like the Bank of America clock that once stood on Rincon Hill (since supplanted by a high rise) or the 17 Reasons Why Sign that loomed over Mission Street, “The Royal Road” underlines the nature of a changing city. “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins’ first feature “Medicine for Melancholy” (2008) similarly focuses on transformation in the city, but within the context of 24 hours as a couple traverses the city, including at a stop at the Museum of Africa Diaspora.
For Clint Eastwood, San Francisco has been a place to operate on both sides of the law (as an actor, that is). 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. In “Escape from Alcatraz” (1979), he is a convict plotting a prison break in this drama filmed on the fabled rock.
The city’s infinite variety has lent itself to an equally diverse list of movies. 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. “Colma: The Musical” (2006), the irresistible story of three teens trying to find their way in the world, takes place partially in San Francisco with scenes notably shot in the Mission. But it also an homage to the city’s titular neighbor with its infamous cemeteries—Wyatt Earp and Joe DiMaggio are among the town’s “residents”— and its suburban homes and its lively, legendary dive bar, Molloy’s Tavern.
True stories of San Francisco inspired such well-received films as the 2003 documentary “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” and the Oscar-winning “Milk” (2008), a drama about the pioneering days of the gay liberation movement. The movie meticulously depicts 1970s Castro Street; as part of the production, the historic Castro Theatre’s neon sign was restored. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (2015), adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s autobiographical novel about a 15-year-old’s wild youth, similarly evokes the city in the 1970s. While most locations had to be dressed to look of the era, Spec’s, the half-century-old North Beach watering hole and museum, already looked the part.
Speaking of North Beach, two films from 2014 capture different eras of the neighborhood famous as a home to Italian immigrants and Beat Generation writers. “Big Eyes,” the story of Walter and Margaret Keane and the true authorship of the famous Keane paintings, captures a vibrant 1950s home to galleries and night clubs. “Man from Reno,” a mystery revolving around murder and missing persons, was shot all over town, including at the Hotel Majestic. But it is the scenes shot in North Beach, on the streets and at the famed saloon Vesuvio, that make the most vivid impression, revealing a neighborhood perhaps less glamorous than its 1950s heyday, but still rife with cafes, bars, restaurants and other entertainment.
In recent years, 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 bar and venerable waterfront restaurant the Ramp in the city's Dogpatch neighborhood.
Even Marvel Comics has found inspiration in San Francisco. In the Disney animated feature about a young robotics genius battling evil, “Big Hero 6” (2014), San Fransokyo is a glorious imagining of what they city might look like with its singular architecture married to Tokyo’s gleaming skyline. The live-action “Ant-Man” (2015) takes a grittier approach after an opening scene set during a bucolic drive through the Marin Headlands overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge gives way to protagonist Scott Lang’s (Paul Rudd) urban reality of the city’s tumultuous Tenderloin.
Clearly, San Francisco continues to work its spell. These are not the first or the last filmmakers to discover what every San Franciscan knows and what every visitor discovers: The place is magic.