Dear Rain,

What is the best depiction of SF in a movie?


Dear J,

Hollywood loves San Francisco, which shouldn't come as a surprise. It's the definition of photogenic and provides its own free special effect anytime the fog rolls in! This list from Film SF includes almost 300 movies and TV shows that have been shot in and around the city, from the beginnings of the film industry until now.

But it sounds like your question isn’t necessarily what’s the best San Francisco movie, but what SF movie features the best representation of San Francisco.

This is a question I’ve pondered many times during decades of movie watching, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t just one. One of the most consistent things about the city is its inconsistency. Change, for better or worse, comes to San Francisco constantly. A movie filmed here the 1960s is going to be about a very different city than one filmed in the 1950s, or the 1990s.

So, I'm going to be methodical about this, picking a movie from each decade, from the 1940s to now, that I feel captures the city, or certain aspects of it, better than other movies released around the same time may have.

1940s: Dark Passage

The first half of this Bogart and Bacall noir may make you feel a little uneasy, almost as though all the characters on screen are looking at you. And, they kind of are. Half the film is shot from Bogart's character's point of view, meaning Bacall stares into the camera a lot, while you hear Bogart's voice respond to her. Thankfully, it's a gimmick they stop using about half-way through, once Bogie's jailbird gets a new face.

This movie is my pick for the 1940's for one thing and one thing only: The inclusion of the Malloch Apartments on Telegraph Hill, which serve as Bacall's residence in the movie. The art deco masterpiece plays a prominent part in the film, and, in a rare turn of events for San Francisco, it's a building that still remains, virtually unchanged, up there on Montgomery Street.

OK, it's not completely unchanged. Apartments inside are going for a little more than they were in the 1940's. In fact, one was on sale just last month for the bargain price of $1.5 million.

Alas, it looks to have already been sold. Another noir dream, smashed.

1950s: Vertigo

Of course Vertigo takes the crown for the 1950s, and in a fight, would probably top the list of best San Francisco movies for any decade. I remember after I first saw it, during a re-release in the 1980s at the Bridge Theater, all I wanted to do was wander the twisted and steep San Francisco streets like Kim Novak, staring dreamily at grave sites at Mission Dolores, and tossing petals into the water at Fort Point. And ok, yeah I did do some of those things. But I drew the line at jumping into the Bay. (And so did she. That part was actually filmed on a soundstage.) I've probably watched it at least 15 times since I first saw it, and each time, I find something else to fall in love with.

Speaking of dashed apartment dreams, the front of the apartment featured in the above clip was completely changed a few years ago. For the worse, of course.

1960s: Petulia

Bullitt may be the obvious choice for the 1960s, and certainly, just watching Steve McQueen stare at things in silence is worth the price of admission alone. That, and a bitchin’ car chase to boot! But anyone who’s lived here for even a year is going to be annoyed by that chase’s complete disregard for local geography.

Petulia, directed by Richard Lester, and starring Julie Christie and George C. Scott, is filled with excellent locations: a lunch scene at a topless club, (“Best Irish stew in town!”); a run through Fort Point; a penguin show near the Cannery in Fisherman's Wharf; and late night shopping at the former Cala on California Street. But it also captures a 1960s zeitgeist that includes both the squares AND the hippies (or “arch kook” as Christie's Petulia is deemed by the older and squarer Archie, played by Scott), while also hinting at the sourness beneath the decade's youth culture.

It's a trippy little movie that plays with a nonlinear narrative, features performances by Janis Joplin, and the Grateful Dead, (who also play extras), and happens to include one of my all-time favorite on-screen romances.

1970s: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

If you want to know what San Francisco looked like in the 1970s, Phillip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is your best bet. Its characters include government workers (Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams) who are able to afford to live in a Victorians in North Beach and Alamo Square (oh, those were the days); a failed writer (Jeff Goldblum) and his wife (Veronica Cartwright) who run a mud bath; and Leonard Nimoy as a super creepy psychologist.

Sure, it's a horror movie about pod people taking over the earth. But it's also a super dark comedy about the "me generation," the burgeoning self help industry, and paranoia. But just because it can be funny, doesn't mean it isn't scary as hell. Once you see it, you'll never forget its final moment.

In the clip above, Kevin McCarthy plays the man who meets a grisly end. He was also the star of the original 1956 version of the movie. So, in a sense, if you choose to believe he's playing the same character, who has been running around Northern California for the past 22 years warning people about the impending invasion, this movie is actually a sequel, and not a remake.

Next time: the 1980s to now!

Rain Jokinen was born and raised in San Francisco and, miraculously, still calls the city home. Her future plans include becoming a millionaire, buying a condo complex, and then tearing it down to replace it with a dive bar. You can ask this native San Franciscan your questions here.

In these Troubled San Francisco Times, there is a lot of talk about who was here when, and what that does (or doesn't) mean. In an effort to both assist newcomers and take long-time residents down memory lane, we present to you Ask a San Francisco Native, a column penned by SF native and longtime SFist contributor Rain Jokinen, which is inspired by a similar one on our sister site Gothamist, and is intended to put to rest all those questions only a native of this city can answer. Send yours here!