The 20 Best Movies Set in San Francisco
6. Time After Time (1979)
An interesting twist plot involves Malcolm McDowell as writer H.G. Wells, who goes on a time machine journey from 1880’s London to 1979 San Francisco, where he must search for a man that he believes to be Jack the Ripper.
Assisted by modern day bank teller Amy (Mary Steenburgen) this film not only has a fun and creative storyline, but features some of the best location footage of late 1970’s San Francisco, including the Embarcadero, the Financial District, Golden Gate Park and the Marina District. David Warner is ominous as the Ripper character.
5. Blue Jasmine (2013)
Woody Allen’s drama featured Cate Blanchett in an Oscar winning performance as the New York socialite who comes to live with her hard luck sister in San Francisco as her life unravels.
Allen made ample use of San Francisco and Marin county locales for the film, which contrasts the successful life of Jasmine in New York, married to her philandering husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) with her life after the move to California, in which she struggles with her sanity and her complex relationship with her sister. Miles away from the humor and slapstick of Play it Again, Sam, Blue Jasmine shows how far Woody has come as a filmmaker.
4. The Conversation (1974)
Following on the heels of his success with The Godfather, Bay Area filmmaker Francis Coppolla set this Watergate era thriller in his home town, where master audio surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) suffers from the consequences of his surveillance of a young couple. The film used San Francisco’s Union Square memorably, as Caul and partner Stan eavesdrop on the conversation of a young couple (Frederick Forrest and Cindy Williams).
Caul’s client is a man he knows only as “The Director” (played by Robert Duvall) whose Embarcadero Center office becomes the location for many of the film’s scenes as Caul tries to make sense of what will happen to the couple at the “Jack Tar Hotel”, a real San Francisco location on Van Ness Avenue. Check out Harrison Ford in an early appearance as The Director’s assistant.
3. Dirty Harry (1971)
“Do you feel lucky…punk?” Harry Callahan sneers at a bad guy during the iconic scene, which took place on Drumm Street in San Francisco’s downtown, outside of the Bank of America.
The film contains so many great scenes that are now etched into the public consciousness that it is hard to list them all, and the myriad San Francisco locations that serve as a backdrop to this great film are also numerous. Golden Gate Park, North Beach, Washington Square, San Francisco City Hall, the Bank of America Building, the cross at Mt. Davidson, the list goes on and on.
Harry Callahan eventually reappeared in four sequels, most memorably in 1982’s Sudden Impact, and they all made great use of the San Francisco locations. Eastwood would also travel south to make his directorial debut in Play Misty for Melater in 1971, set in the nearby Monterey/Carmel area.
2. Vertigo (1958)
Alfred Hitchcock had a well-known love affair with Northern California, shooting a handful of his greatest films there. Set in Paris in the original novel and contemplated at first for New Orleans, Hitchcock decided to set the story of John ‘Scotty’ Ferguson (James Stewart) and Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton (Kim Novak) in the City by the Bay.
Using a careful color palette of reds and greens to express the emotional states of his characters, Vertigo is a study of people on the edge, emotionally and physically. Scotty lives at 900 Lombard St., at the bottom of Telegraph Hill, and he becomes involved with the wealthy Gavin Elster and his wife who live in a luxury apartment high atop Nob Hill.
His circular, vertiginous chase of the beautiful Madeleine Elster leads him through a travelogue of San Francisco locations, including Union Square, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, Ernie’s Restaurant, Mission Dolores, the Palace of Fine Arts, the Presidio and finally old Fort Point, where Madeleine leaps into the Bay melodramatically. When Scotty finally loses her, he also loses his mind, but eventually he meets Judy Barton who reminds him of his lost love.
Attempting to recapture Madeleine, Scotty and Judy are doomed for failure. Now considered Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo’s rising critical fortunes resulted in it being voted the #1 film in the 2012 Sight and Sound poll. The film is a love song to not only doomed romance, but also the foggy, beautiful city in which it was set…San Francisco.
1. Bullitt (1968)
It could have gone either way, but one particularly high charged sequence nudged Peter Yates’ 1968 thriller Bullitt to the top of my list.
The story of San Francisco Police detective Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) who is entrusted by rising politico Walter Chalmers to guard Chicago mobster Johnny Ross until Chalmers can get Ross’ grand jury testimony, Bullitt is the ultimate late 1960’s hard boiled thriller and the career high point of one of Hollywood’s greatest icons, Steve McQueen.
Shot entirely on location in the San Francisco area, McQueen’s Bullitt must battle mobsters, hit men, corruption, and police bureaucracy until he finally walks out vindicated and returns home to girlfriend Cathy (Jackie Bisset). The San Francisco locales are many, such as the Mark Hopkins Hotel, Enrico’s cafe on Broadway and the beautiful Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill.
But the thing that makes Bullitt the single most memorable film set in San Francisco is the iconic car chase sequence that takes place between Bullitt’s 1968 Ford Mustang GT fastback and the 1968 Dodge Charger R/T (driven by Bill Hickman, as evil henchman Phil, out to kill Bullitt.) The sequence lasts 10 minutes and 53 seconds, beginning in the Fisherman’s Wharf area at Columbus and Chestnut, followed by a midtown shooting on Hyde and Laguna Streets, and finally ending outside the city at the Guadalupe Canyon Parkway in Brisbane.
Yates cleverly cast against the grain of the ‘new Hollywood’ youth films of the time (such as Bonnie and Clyde) by making McQueen’s cop a cool hipster, while the bad guy hit men are nerdy ‘squares’. McQueen apparently drove much of the sequence himself, despite the danger and the risk to the film of losing their leading man to injury.
Bullitt’s chase sequence has become so well-known and so iconic, as well as being so deeply tied to the city of San Francisco and its geography, that to me this puts this film squarely in the number one spot as most memorable San Francisco set film of all time.
Author Bio: Jim Davidson is a 1980 graduate of Northwestern University’s Radio-TV-Film Dept. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been a video producer since 1987. Jim has written articles for Images Film journal and is currently working on a book about the movie Harold and Maude.