Our Favorite San Francisco Films

Harry Callahan is a moral compass with a hand cannon in a city that, perhaps more than any other, has broken free of its moorings and gone adrift on a sea of relativism.

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Cover of "Barbary Coast"
Cover of Barbary Coast

Though born and raised in Los Angeles, my family has deep roots in San Francisco. Most of my father’s family, with the exception of his brother, lived in the Bay Area, so while family reunions with my mother’s kin happened annually at our house in Los Angeles, getting together with the Wolfs meant a trek to San Francisco.

In part because of that anchor, and perhaps in part because my best years in university were spent at UC Davis and Berkeley, I have never felt particularly partial to either Southern or Northern California. I was of both places. I was, and am, simply “Californian.”

That is probably the reason that I feel as strongly about films that use the bay area as a backdrop as I do about those for which Los Angeles is the setting. There are some movies set in San Francisco that could well be set anyplace else, and it is just nice to see the familiar streets and landmarks. The films that move me the most are those others: those movies for which San Francisco is more than just a background, it is a silent character in the story.

Perhaps it comes out in the eclectic nature the characters. Perhaps it is in the way that San Francisco’s unique melange of districts and neighborhoods all compressed together in the confines of the Peninsula has turned every one of its citizens into a character they may not be anyplace else. Above all, perhaps what sets the true San Francisco movie apart is that it captures the always surprising poetry of the city.

So without waxing too lyrical or breaking into song, here are my favorite eleven movies in which San Francisco serves as a supporting actress as well as a setting.

1. San Francisco (1936) –  Too often forgotten by modern movie goers, this Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald love story set against the backdrop of the city before, during, and in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake is the quintessential San Francisco movie. Director W.S. Van Dyke and writer Robert Hopkins capture the feeling of San Francisco prior to the disaster, and through its characters bring to life the moment in time when the city’s past as an overgrown boomtown dissolved, and its future as the cultural capital of the West began.

2. Barbary Coast (1935) – Perhaps the first major Hollywood film where the personality of the work drew heavily on San Francisco. Director Howard Hawks and writing team Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur turned Herbert Asbury’s bestselling noir novel into a love story, but in the process they leave in a host of tidbits that make this a truly San Franciscan film. Hawks’ San Francisco is a frontier town by the Bay, too corrupt even for a jaded gold-digger like Mary Rutledge (played by Miriam Hopkins.) A more wholesome element is trying to fight the local kleptocrats, but in the end the citizenry has to turn to the vigilantism to take on the saloon owners.  The story is as much about the city’s struggle to rise above its boomtown roots as it is about a girl’s effort to rise above the more venal aspects of her nature. Mary is San Francisco, and vice-versa.

3. 48 hrs. (1982) – Walter Hill’s classic buddy cop film was pure comedy noir. I have heard some people say that it could have been set in any of a number of American cities – New York, Chicago, Detroit – but what keeps it from becoming trite was the selection of San Francisco. I have always believed that 48 hrs. is really a western film in disguise – it begins with a shootout jailbreak, and its main characters are a lawman with a girl who works in a saloon, a group of bank robbers, an honorable thief, an renegade, and an Indian. Somehow you needed to be in a western city, a place where anything was possible and that had the feeling of a social frontier if not a real one, to make that formula work. Watch the movie, and you feel San Francisco in the background in every shot.

4. The Joy Luck Club (1993) – More poignantly than Flower Drum Song, Wayne Wang’s adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel took us behind the Stockton Street storefronts and into the lives, the dreams, and the tragedies of San Francisco’s Chinese community. Although neither Tan nor Wang delve into the deep history of Chinese in the “Old Gold Mountain” (as the city is called in Mandarin,) the film portrays the eternal “otherness” of the Chinese in the Bay Area. Unable to assimilate but nearly stifled by a community knit tightly by its shared tragedies and long rejection by its otherwise liberal milileu, the characters ultimately come to terms with their identities. Arguably each is somehow enabled or tormented by San Francisco’s assumed multiculturalism, making their stories as much about the city as about the women or their shared ancestral home.

5. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) – Will Smith’s Chris Gardener biopic introduces us to a side of the city that few who have never lived there really know exists, and many who do live there have spent their lives ignoring. Even as the film showed us San Francisco’s underbelly, it gave us a plausible setting for Gardener’s dream to become a reality. New York is not a place for such remarkable changes, but somehow we can believe that San Francisco is.

6-10. The Dirty Harry Films – Apologies to Clint Eastwood and the directors that brought these five films to life – they really are a single serial film rather than five separate movies. Harry Callahan is a moral compass with a hand cannon in a city that, perhaps more than any other, has broken free of its moorings and gone adrift on a sea of relativism. Eastwood never meant the films to be the cathartic Neocon paeans to summary justice that the late Roger Ebert thought they were. Resented by many progressives, the Dirty Harry films juxtaposed San Francisco’s ultimate evolution of political correctness to the common sense of the American frontier hero. The films were minimalist meditations on the line between liberty and order set in a town where the former was worshipped and the latter dismissed as dressed-up facism.

11. The Presidio (1988) – Too often dismissed as a second-rate mystery or buddy film, The Presidio works in San Francisco because of the great irony of the venerable Army post. Here was one of the largest and most important installations in the U.S. military, and it was enveloped by a city filled with people that resented its presence and the activities it contained. The uneasy relationship between the post and the city comes to life in the struggle between the protagonists, Sean Connery’s Colonel Caldwell, the post provost marshal, and Mark Harmon’s SFPD inspector Jay Austin.

Honorable Mention – The Towering Inferno (1974) – Whenever I am in San Francisco for business, I often find myself across the street from Fire Station 13 on Sansome Street in the Financial District. I cannot hear the sirens without thinking of The Towering Inferno. San Francisco has a singular relationship with fire and a mixed reaction to the ever-rising towers built on downtown landfill. Somehow the suspense of the film was more poignant because it was in San Francisco. The image from the film that was most memorable was not the action, but the lights of Marin County and Oakland as seen from the 138th floor Promenade Room. It was those reminders of normal life twinkling in the distance as hundreds huddled in fear while flames crept closer that best delivered the film’s meta-message, mocking the hubris that would build such an edifice. “This city is not about glass and steel,” those lights seemed to say, “it is about earth, sea, and sky.”

Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

7 thoughts on “Our Favorite San Francisco Films”

  1. “Bullit” was a pretty good film of the era (1968). It featured an amazing car chase. “Flower Drum Song” featured opening credits by Dong Kingman, an American Scene watercolorist of great talent and renown. They are truly beautiful and significant examples of the fine line between fine art and graphic art. Take a look.

  2. The San Francisco Chinese community didn’t’ care for Flower Drum Song. They used a Japanese actors, Miyoshi Umeki to and Jack Soo to portray Chinese roles. #FAIL

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