Made in San Francisco: the best films of the Bay Area

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Ever since my underage viewing of Take the Money and Run, I’ve been a fan of Woody Allen films. Even his supposed “bad” ones are worthy of watching. So I was excited to catch his latest release, Blue Jasmine, especially since it was set and filmed in San Francisco. It’s always fun to scene-spot during films set in my hometown, and in this case, two of my favorite places – Aub Zam Zam and Gaspare’s Pizza – are featured in the movie.

It also got me wondering about all the movies set in San Francisco and the Bay Area, which is quite a few. And no wonder. What with the hills, the fog, the Victorians, the cable cars, etc., it’s a very cinematic place; so distinctive, it often becomes another character in the film (see: Vertigo). Speaking of that, the film noir directors of the 1950s seemed to especially favor San Francisco, which you can read all about in ReelSF’s carefully researched blog.

Anyway, in no particular order, here’s a list of the best films set in San Francisco:

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Butterflies are Free (1973)
I’m a fan of great dialogue, so I tend to favor stage plays adapted to film. Which is probably why I like this set piece starring Goldie Hawn as a hippie chick who develops affections for her blind neighbor, played by Edward Albert. There’s not a lot of scene spotting here since most of the film is shot within Albert’s loft apartment (with awesome sky lights), but it perfectly evokes San Francisco of the time, especially the friction between old money Nob Hill and anti-establishment flower children.

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Dark Passage (1947)
As mentioned, San Francisco was a popular setting for some of the best film noir made during the 1940s and ‘50s, including this film about an escaped convict (Humphrey Bogart) who hides out in Lauren Bacall’s apartment in Telegraph Hill. Even the sunny scenes are deliciously dark, and another awesome apartment is featured.

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The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
The film starts in New York and Acapulco, but the San Francisco scenes bring out the nautical noirishness in this Orson Welles classic. There’s also scenes from Sausalito and Chinatown, and the dizzying final shots at an amusement park that once existed across from Ocean Beach.

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Vertigo (1958)
No other film is more associated with San Francisco than Vertigo. And I can’t imagine a more appropriate place to film it… ever look out from a tall building that sits on top of one of the city’s hills? San Francisco plays a starring role here, including a famous scene from Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge. Hitchcock filmed a number of movies in the Bay Area, but Vertigo is his finest.

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Play It Again, Sam (1972)
Fun fact: Woody Allen actually lived in San Francisco for a time, perfecting his standup at a North Beach club and shooting Take the Money and Run (1969). So filming Play It Again, Sam in the city was probably an easy choice. I especially like their scenes in Sausalito, including shots from the bayside deck at The Trident.

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The Graduate (1967)
I’m including this because it’s one of my favorite flicks, even though most of the scenes are filmed in LA. But there’s enough of Berkeley (Elaine attends UC) for me to justify it here, including a great shot of Dustin Hoffman driving his red Alfa Romeo across the Bay Bridge.

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Crumb (1994)
This documentary on artist/illustrator Robert Crumb, who moved to San Francisco in 1967 and lived in the Bay Area until 1993, naturally includes a number of scenes of the city. One that stuck out for me is Crumb walking along Market Street, loud and obnoxious as ever, while talking about his desire to get away from the hyper commercialization of the U.S. (he subsequently moved to a village in France). He also meets with his artist brother Maxon, who I actually once saw panhandling on Market.

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The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2004)
This movie was originally intended to be a study on the parrots, but ended up examining the even more compelling life of parrot care-taker Mark Bittner. It also shows the slightly insular world that is North Beach, despite (or maybe because of) all the tourists. Lots of scenes in and around Pioneer Park and Coit Tower.

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Harold and Maude (1971)
Similar in tone to Butterflies are Free, as far as generational clashes, and one of the quirkier films of the era. This is a black comedy about a young, dissatisfied scion (Bud Cort) with a suicide fetish who meets and falls in love with a free-spirited septuagenarian, played by Ruth Gordon. Just about every Peninsula town gets some screen time here, from Colma to Palo Alto.

Other worthy SF films I didn’t include for one reason or another: The Rock (didn’t see it), Milk (the story dominates the setting), Bullitt (Steve McQueen’s character seems too incongruous to the city), The Maltese Falcon (never got through it start to finish, and mostly shot in Burbank), Dirty Harry (didn’t love it), What’s Up, Doc? (think I saw it but can’t remember), The Conversation (great film but too interior), Birdman of Alcatraz, The Birds, D.O.A., Basic Instinct, So I Married an Axe Murderer.

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