San Francisco’s rolling hills, fog and bridges have called out to Hollywood filmmakers for years, and many of them have ventured north the three hundred miles or so to shoot their films in ‘Baghdad by the Bay’. Here is a list of the 20 most memorable films with settings in San Francisco. I tried to favor films that were set mostly or entirely in The City, although I let a couple creep in that were only partially set here.
20. Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985)
Hong Kong born director Wayne Wang had hit the scene with the San Francisco based thriller Chang is Missing in 1982 and would go on to make The Joy Luck Club in 1995. But I have included his third feature, the often overlooked Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, which was released in the summer of 1985.
The film is a low key story of the travails of an immigrant Chinese widow, Mrs. Tam, as she deals with her unmarried daughter and sometimes helpful brother-in-law. Mrs. Tam wants to return to China for one last visit before she dies and to reconnect with her ancestry and history. The film is a poignant look at the conflicts faced by Chinese-American immigrants, many of whom lived in the City by the Bay.
19. San Francisco (1936)
What list of memorable San Francisco films would be complete without this one? Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald star in this story of San Francisco at the time of the 1906 earthquake. As typical of many movies of this time, location footage was limited to establishing shots and the film was mostly shot on the sound stages of MGM studios.
Ms. MacDonald’s rousing version of “San Francisco” (“Open your golden gates…”) was The City’s unofficial theme songs until Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” overtook it in the 1970’s and 80’s.
18. 48 Hrs. (1982)
Walter Hill’s 1982 hit is the story of an oddly matched couple. Nick Nolte is a cop searching for an escaped convict named Ganz who has killed two San Francisco police detectives; he enlists the aid of Ganz’s former partner Reggie Hammond, played by Murphy, who also has a stake in seeing that Ganz is arrested.
The film made ample use of San Francisco’s urban locales while mixing in a variety of Los Angeles locations as well.
17. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
John Carpenter teamed up again with Escape from New York star Kurt Russell to make this offbeat film about trucker Jack Burton (Russell) who gets involved in a centuries old battle over Chinese mysticism in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The film was a box office flop on its release in 1986, but has since developed a cult following and is now highly regarded.
Although the film’s interiors were shot on studio sets, it remains an interesting look at ancient mysticism and its presence in San Francisco.
16. Dark Passage (1947)
DelmerDaves’ Dark Passage is interesting due to the fact that the first ten minutes of the film are seen entirely from the point of view of the eyes of Humphrey Bogart, a technique that was adopted for the entire film by Robert Montgomery in 1948’s The Lady in the Lake. Bogart is a man convicted of killing his wife who escapes from San Quentin and is aided by Lauren Bacall.
Dark Passage benefits from the fact that, by the late 40’s, much more extensive location shooting was being used instead of just Hollywood backlots, so we see more actual San Francisco locations. Plus, Agnes Moorehead is great as Madge and the always reliable Bruce Bennett was along for the ride.
15. Harold and Maude (1971)
It’s Bud Cort as the young man prone to fake his own suicide. It’s Ruth Gordon as the indomitable 79 year old who shows him the meaning of life and love. Hal Ashby’s 1971 film was based on a script by Colin Higgins and was originally set in Los Angeles. Ashby wanted to shoot on the east coast, Paramount wanted L.A., so the Bay Area was finally selected as a compromise.
Mostly shot on the San Francisco Peninsula, in the area now known as Silicon Valley, one of the most memorable scenes of the film was shot at the ruins of the Sutro Baths, just north of the Cliff House and the Great Highway. Also, when Harold and Maude sit by the Bay and hold hands, they are looking out from the Emervyille Marina to the one and only City of San Francisco. Cat Stevens soundtrack and all, this is one memorable film.
14. Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
Alcatraz prison held some of the toughest convicts in American, including Al Capone, before it was finally closed in 1963 because it was too expensive to operate.
Alcatraz films could almost be a list in itself, and include honorable mentions Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and The Rock (1996). But Don Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz makes the list here as it was entirely shot at the prison and features Clint Eastwood’s great-as-usual performance as Frank Morris, who along with two other inmates, the Anglin brothers, actually escaped from The Rock in 1962 but are presumed dead. Patrick McGoohan is perfect as The Warden, who early in the film warns Eastwood “Nobody has EVER escaped from Alcatraz, Morris!”
Although you won’t see much of The City, the film is notable as the last collaboration of Eastwood and Siegel, who was his mentor.