5 Movies About San Francisco

One critique guest blogger Adam had in his great review of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine was that the film did not have a good sense of place. Considering that Blue Jasmine is inspired by a play and written by a man both famous for great use of location (New Orleans in the case of A Streetcar Named Desire and New York City in the case of Woody Allen), this is a disappointment. San Francisco by way of Blue Jasmine may as well have been Boston, or New York, or any metropolitan area near a beach. Fortunately, the city by the bay has inspired many great movies which capture its beauty, history, quirkiness, and tragedy. Here are five examples for fans with flowers in their hair.

5. San Francisco (1936):
The first hour and a half of this musical plays like a typical Hollywood melodrama: Will Jeanette MacDonald throw her promising opera career away for the rough Clark Gable? Will she listen to Spencer Tracy’s Father Mullin, and turn from sin? However, in a violent twist, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake hits like a natural disaster Deux Ex Machina. It’s worth seeing the movie just to watch this sequence, since it’s a great example of early Hollywood special effects. Plus, despite the hysteria, apparently it wasn’t too far off from the truth. Hollywood glamor and history all in one! (Bonus trivia: MacDonald sings “Would You?” which would later be recycled in Singin’ in the Rain).

4. Bullitt (1968):
With steep hills, narrow roads, and a maze-like map, San Francisco is the perfect location for a car chase. Bullitt takes full advantage of the city’s dizzying geography in what might possibly be the greatest car chase in cinema history. (Eat your heart out, The French Connection.) Some San Francisco native has given an exhaustive shot-by-shot breakdown of how the scene gets San Francisco wrong, but it’s a car chase, not a bus tour.

3. The Times Of Harvey Milk (1984):
Any discussion about San Francisco history has to include counter-culture gay pride. This documentary, made six years after Milk’s assassination, occasionally borders on hagiography when describing its protagonist. However, the film excels at showing not only Milk’s life, but also his effect on San Francisco and the gay pride movement.

2. Chan Is Missing (1982):
Considering the fame of San Francisco’s Chinatown, it’s disappointing how few films deal frankly with the city’s Asian American population. Most either prey on its exotic “otherness” (like Lady from Shanghai) or paint it in broad, often racist strokes (like the Charlie Chan series). Chan Is Missing is the exception; a quiet indie film with a story that’s a tonal mix of Chungking Express and The Bicycle Thief. Asian American voices are few in American film, and this is a fantastic example.

1. Vertigo (1958):
As of 2012, Vertigo is officially the greatest film of all time, so it can’t not be on this list. BFI obligations aside, however, Vertigo is a stunning example of how a master filmmaker like Hitchcock can manipulate time, place, and tone. San Francisco has never seemed so eerie, treacherous, or ghostly as it does in Vertigo. The film doesn’t deal with San Francisco’s geography or history the way the other films on this list do. Instead, Hitchcock uses the city to create a mood piece in the same way Woody Allen used New York in Manhattan, although with different intentions. In Vertigo, San Francisco can seem exciting, haunted, claustrophobic, romantic, or pitiless. Vertigo in this way is the best film about San Francisco, because instead of pursuing one idea of the city, it expresses many.

There are many runners up that unfortunately didn’t make the cut. Two personal favorites are Peter Bogdonavich’s slapstick What’s Up, Doc?, which contains my second-favorite chase scene through San Francisco, and the Irene Dunne classic I Remember Mama, which is guaranteed to make at least one member of my family cry at each viewing. What are your favorite movies about San Francisco? Tell me in the comments below!


About Anne Marie Kelly

Classic Film history & restoration nerd. Writer of A Year With Kate and Women's Pictures for The Film Experience. Follow me on Twitter @WeRecycleMovies.
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6 Responses to 5 Movies About San Francisco

  1. Margaret says:

    I don’t know if I’m ever going to forgive you for leaving “The Rock” off of this list.

  2. dirkmalcolm says:

    The Conversation has a great, repeated sequence on Union Square, and when I visited, I couldn’t get it out of my head.

  3. Peter Albert says:

    I enjoyed this column but disagree with the premise: Blue Jasmine wouldn’t have worked anywhere else but San Francisco. Americans know the city has otherworldly beauty, and Allen teases us along with quick shots of the Golden Gate, Chinatown, Pacific Heights…but all disillusioned, displaced & embittered Jasmine can see is the cramped, claustrophobic quarters in the grittiest part of the Mission, or the dreary fog belt of the Sunset…each also with their own charm. Allen knows (and loves) SF: check out “Play It Again Sam” for proof. He seems to be deliberately playing against type, all the way to the tragic but bucolic end scene in South Park.

    • Anne Marie says:

      He knows and loves SF, but not in this movie. I’m usually a big fan of how Allen uses location, but in the case of Blue Jasmine, San Francisco felt too much like New York. Allen typically has such a fantastic way of incorporating the personality of the city into his films. But no real part of San Francisco touched Blue Jasmine besides some perfunctory establishing shots – the film could have taken place anywhere.
      Thanks for the comment. Glad you enjoyed the rest of the post!

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