With colorful street corners and postcard vistas at nearly every turn, San Francisco has a long history with Hollywood. Our hills, bridges and dizzying landmarks make great settings for everything from sexy thrillers to romantic comedies to white-knuckle car chases and bombastic explosions. Far from a comprehensive list, think of these as your video store employee recommendations.
Arguably Hitchcock's finest, the psychological drama boasts Mission Dolores, the Golden Gate Bridge, The Mission (AKA "skid row"), California Palace of the Legion of Honor, The Brocklebank, Muir Woods, and Mission San Juan Bautista. (Watch it for Kim Novak's eyebrows alone!) And if you've ever wanted to know what it was like to run across apartment building rooftops, wonder no more:
The chase scene in this 1968 classic presents a full 10 minutes of stylish screeching and scrambling on San Francisco streets, and it still stands as one of the all-time best chases in movie history. Watch closely and you'll glimpse a hodge-podge of locations that don't make much sense from a geographical point of view (they're detailed in this map). But who cares, when you've got Steve McQueen burning rubber all over town in a forest green Mustang GT?
The Conversation (1974)
Though it won the Palme D'Or, Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation gets overshadowed by other larger than life films The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. Too bad since it's a great flick, one that takes place in San Francisco. Our favorite scene is the conversation in question, where in Gene Hackman bugs the conversation of a couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) as they walk through Union Square. This is not the Union Square you know today.
Dirty Harry (1971)
After a woman is shot and killed while swimming in the Hilton's rooftop pool (sadly long gone), grizzled SFPD detective Harry Callahan scopes out the sniper's location atop 555 California Street, where clues — and sweeping views galore — abound. The rest of the flick takes Eastwood through an on-location romp through the city as he chases a seemingly random serial killer to Washington Square, Kezar Stadium, Marina Green, North Beach strip clubs, the Aquatic Park and finally over the bridge to Larkspur.
Though much of Zodiac was shot in Los Angeles, we love the fictionalized, fluorescent lit newsroom scenes, showing an idealized version of the 1970s Chronicle newsroom, back in the day when the paper actually mattered, and was good. The mailroom scene near the beginning of the film was shot in the actual Chronicle mailroom, and of course the flyover shots of the TransAmerica pyramid under construction were CGI-enhanced.
The Rock (1996)
The Rock is a true classic. It's got the perfect intersection of action movie elements: a gruff-voiced Sean Connery, twitchy Nic Cage, geographically nonsensical San Francisco and lots of explosions, nukes, and amazing one-liners (A-HOLE!). In typical Michael Bay style, this epic chase follows Connery and his Humvee, pursued by Cage in a yellow Ferrari, as he destroys a hippied out VW Bug, a truck full of delicious "Yosemite Water" and a cable car, which spontaneously shoots 15 feet in the air and explodes for no discernible reason:
Basic Instinct (1992)
It's the movie that made Sharon Stone's crotch famous, but this classic "erotic thriller" also features some pretty sweet early 90's San Francisco and North Bay scenes. Michael Douglas plays a homicide detective and Stone his murderous (and sexy) suspect, and the plot revolves around them driving between her lavish Pac Heights mansion and her equally expansive Stinson Beach house as they antagonize and sex each other up by turns. Here's one such drive along a very familiar stretch of Hwy 1:
That Boy (1974)
This seminal (ahem) film of early gay porn star Peter Berlin features terrific footage of the gritty world of hustlers and gay men who populated Polk Street and SoMa in the pre-Milk, pre-AIDS era, in addition to a lot of fleshy footage of Berlin himself, strutting his stuff with that Dutch boy haircut in some very tight pants. There are multiple great shots to choose from, tight pants descending stairs near Coit Tower, tight pants parading up Polk Street, and a vintage leather bar scene that's far more true to life than what you'd later see recreated for movies like Cruising and Nightmare on Elm Street 2. (The flick was X-rated and the clip is semi-NSFW)
The Game (1997)
Spoiler Alert: By the time high-powered investment banker Michael Douglas reaches the end of an altered reality game he has unwittingly been signed up for, he's suicidal and on literally on the edge. In an attempt to end it all he plummets several stories, crashing through the majestic glass ceiling of the Palace Hotel's atrium, where he's in for a sudden awakening. (Double spoiler alert: it's Sean Penn.)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
In their fourth feature film, the crew of the Enterprise slingshot around the sun and back in time to present day San Francisco in search of the only thing that could save 23rd century Earth: a living humpback whale. The premise was a statement about environmental responsibility, but Baghdad by the Bay in 1986 turns out to be one of the more bizzarre away missions the crew has ever embarked on. Here, Spock and Kirk try to figure out Muni while Bones, McCoy and Sulu strut through North Beach in search of something that hasn't been invented yet. Meanwhile, Mr. Chekov runs into some trouble trying to figure out how to get to the naval base in Alameda:
Honorable mention: Spock deals with a typical Muni problem in a very Vulcan way.
So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993)
Michael Myers' role as Charlie, the forlorn early-90s beat poet, leads to a great poetry slam scene in a coffee shop with absurdly sized cappuccinos, but it is Phil Hartman's cameo as Vicky the Alcatraz Park Ranger that really steals the show:
40 Days And 40 Nights (2002)
The wave of late-90s teen RomComs and San Francisco's first Dotcom boom were both on the decline by 2002, making this Josh Hartnett/Shannyn Sossamon vehicle very much of-the-moment. He works for a web design agency where the bagels are delivered by bike courier. She works for a porn filtering software company with offices on a pier. Naturally, they take their first date on a Muni bus all over town, set to a lesser-known Semisonic song (full scene here):
The Five-Year Engagement (2012)
It's a goofy rom-com produced by Judd Apatow and directed by Nicholas Stoller that came out last year featuring Emily Blunt and Jason Segal as a couple who meets in San Francisco and gets engaged but then has to relocate and delay their wedding because Blunt's character gets an academic job. The premise is meh and the reviews were mixed, but there are some lovely shots of the Bay Bridge, Coit Tower, and one climactic scene that takes place in picturesque Alamo Square at the end of the film that is definitely a favorite. (Not to mention a taco truck in an ambulance called Taco-mergency.)
What's Up Doc? (1972)
They don't make screwball comedies like they used to, and though this one hails from an era with different slapstick timing and fairly slow plot development, it remains charming, with multiple scenes on location at the San Francisco Hilton, and the comedic car chase scene that we think was shot in the Potrero. Our favorite, though, is the later scene, after Barbra lets her hair down, when she and Ryan O'Neal are sitting in a room at the Hilton with the Bay behind them:
The Joy Luck Club (1993)
"That bad crab, only you tried to take it. Everybody else want best quality. You? You think different. Waverly took best quality crab. You took worst. Because you have best quality heart." I mean, come on:
Forget the fact that Gus Van Sant and his crew paid to refurbish the facade of the Castro Theatre, and painstakingly recreated signage and facades of mid-1970s Castro Street for this Oscar-winning Harvey Milk biopic. It was shot almost entirely in town, and the scenes of marches down Market Street, and rallys at City Hall are all terrific. But our favorite may be this scene, in which Sean Penn as Milk addresses his "fellow degenerates" and announces his candidacy for Supervisor from a soapbox at the corner of Market and Castro:
Whoopi Goldberg's crime comedy about hiding out from the mob with a bunch of nuns was a big hit for the EGOT winner. The parish-called "St. Catherine's Parish" in the movie-was actually shot in Noe Valley at St. Paul's Catholic Church, with the surrounding area made to appear desolate. Behold: