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By David O'Grady
Part of the fun of watching movies made in San Francisco is to see how filmmakers mess with the geography. In Steve McQueen's Bullitt, a car chase takes an impossible path through the city. In The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman drives to Berkeley on the top deck of the Bay Bridge. Clearly, San Francisco's melodramatic landscape has done a lot to enhance Hollywood's gift for make-believe.
Our city's many contributions to movie magic are chronicled in a new book called Celluloid San Francisco, written by San Francisco locals Jim Van Buskirk and Will Shank. Organized by neighborhood and reaching out to the surrounding Bay Area, Celluloid San Francisco provides a "walking guide" to the local settings--famous and otherwise.
This month's selection of recommended movies, all available for rent at Noe Valley video stores, come from the pages of Celluloid and feature our beloved city, still the charmer for tourists, locals, and moviemakers 100 years after the big quake.
Clark Gable in San Francisco
Required viewing for any denizen of the city, San Francisco (1936) is set in 1906, so the Big One is bound to interrupt this story of a love triangle widened by class struggle. Clark Gable stars as Blackie Norton, a lovable cad and Barbary Coast nightclub proprietor, who offers a singing job to down-on-her-luck Mary Blake (played by Jeannette MacDonald).
But Mary's talent and ambition belong in a better venue than a nightclub, and one of Nob Hill's power brokers is after her to perform in his opera house. As the upper-crust suitor and Blackie clash, Mary is torn between her passion for singing and her abiding--if fearful--attraction to Blackie. Only the advice of a minister, played by Spencer Tracy, can steer Mary through the clash of wills.
Although the earthquake rather conveniently sorts out the story, the sight and sound of the quake are especially remarkable for an early film. Combining the rapid-fire montages of early Soviet filmmakers with the sustained roar of the earth ripping open, San Francisco set a standard for disaster movies that few others have achieved. Just don't tell anyone that the movie was primarily shot in Los Angeles.
Pop Music for the Eyes
Oakland native Finn Taylor mines pop music's lovesick fantasies--their frothy, giddy lightness and lurking shadows--in the San Franciscoset Cherish (2002).
In this film, Robin Tunney plays Zoe Adler, a geeky, insecure computer animator unable to form meaningful relationships. Returning to her car from a party at SOMA's Paradise Lounge, Zoe gets carjacked by a stalker as Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" blares from the radio. In the ensuing struggle for the wheel, she and her attacker run down a bicycle cop and crash the car. The carjacker flees to let Zoe take the rap.
Rather than await trial in jail, Zoe is placed under house arrest, electronically shackled by a tracking bracelet. Her only real human contact comes in the form of Tim Blake Nelson (the simplest of simpletons from O Brother, Where Art Thou?), who plays a police deputy charged with checking her device. Zoe's curious courtship with the shy deputy leads to renewed self-confidence, and soon she is outfoxing the tracking device and roaming the city in a quest to find the stalker and clear her name.
Cherish is a delightfully funky adventure and a special treat for Noe Valley residents--local musician Noe Venable has a song in the film, and a house on Fair Oaks Street proves spookier than its Halloween decorations.
Bogey and Bacall on Telegraph Hill
There are dozens of great noir films shot in San Francisco, but Dark Passage (1947) is the only one that boasts the magic of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
The movie opens through Bogart's eyes, so we can't see his face as he escapes from San Quentin, where he's been wrongfully imprisoned for the death of his wife. Fortunately, Bacall is painting landscapes near the prison that day, and she sneaks him back to her apartment, the deco-chromed building at 1360 Montgomery, on the eastern side of Telegraph Hill (today, you might even see a Bogart cutout peering out the window). It seems Bacall followed his case in the newspapers, and she knows he's not guilty. In a bit of a stretch, Bogart's character gets a back-alley face job to change his identity, making him look like, well, Bogart.
Soon Bogey and Bacall have--surprise!--fallen in love. And it's not much of a mystery who framed Bogart and sent him to prison. The real challenge for Bogart and Bacall is getting him safely out of town. Rotten luck and a nosy friend of Bacall's turn up the heat, and Bogey spends a lot of time riding cable cars to elude his captors.
There's not much substance, but Dark Passage packs tons of San Francisco style.
A 'Twisted Valentine' to the City
Celluloid San Francisco calls Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) a "twisted valentine to San Francisco." But Vertigo is as much about the head as the heart, as James Stewart's detective develops a fear of heights after a colleague falls to his death. Rather than retire, Stewart picks up a case for an old friend whose wife, played by Kim Novak, seems possessed by the spirit of a distant relative. Stewart tails Novak as she visits Mission Dolores and the Palace of the Legion of Honor, ultimately saving her life when she falls into the bay at Fort Point.
Falling is a recurring theme in Vertigo, literally and otherwise. Even Stewart's good friend Midge (played by Barbara Bel Geddes, who starred in another San Francisco classic, I Remember Mama) has fallen for him and can't seem to let him go. The many veils Hitchcock drapes over this tale of deception and obsession don't fall until the last famous shot, in the mission at San Juan Bautista. Not considered a fan favorite on its release, Vertigo today is hailed as a classic.
Exploring Strange New Worlds
As every Star Trek fan knows, San Francisco is home to the Starfleet Academy and a recurring location for various back-in-time episodes of the TV and movie series. Perhaps the best use of the city by the franchise is Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), which features Kirk, Spock, Bones, and crew traveling to San Francisco, circa 1986, to pick up a pair of humpback whales and bring them to Earth in the 23rd century, where saving the whales has become a matter of saving the planet from an alien destroyer.
The contrived story is well concealed by scenes of the crew trying to blend in with the punks, new wavers, and boom-box-toting citizens. The fish-out-of-water humor drew criticism from Trekkie purists, but fair-weather fans will delight in the witty script and recognizable scenes of North Beach, Alameda Naval Air Station, and even a spectacular shot of a Klingon battleship swooping under the Golden Gate Bridge. Never mind that Kirk and Spock take a nonexistent Muni bus line to an aquarium in Sausalito that's actually in Monterey. At least it's reassuring to know that someone is protecting San Francisco from future disasters, real or imaginary.
David O'Grady is a writer and film enthusiast who lives on Noe Street. He'd love to hear your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.