With San Francisco’s fog, bridge and beautiful rolling hills, it has caught the eye of Hollywood filmmakers for decades and many has traveled the 300 miles north to shoot their films. Perfect weather, an urban vibe, mountains and the ocean are some of the key points of shooting in San Francisco. The picturesque and dramatic backdrops allow for so much diversity of shooting. The city can be made to look like New York, Europe, Miami and so many other locations from around the world.
As a result of its beauty and diversity, the following is a list of 20 amazing movies set in San Francisco.
Big Trouble in Little China
Director John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell teamed up to make this film about a trucker who becomes involved in a battle that is centuries old over Chinese mysticism within San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood. While the film was a flop in the box office in 1986, it has developed a cult following and is considered a highly-regarded movie. Although there were only a few filming locations in San Francisco, as most were shot on studio sets in Los Angeles, the movie provides an interesting perspective on ancient magic in the city of San Francisco.
Directed by Woody Allen, this drama features Cate Blanchet in one of her best roles ever as a New York City socialite who moves to live with her sister in San Francisco. Throughout the movie, her life unravels and the audience follows her journey. Allen utilized several Marin and San Francisco county locations for shooting which was a contrast to her life in New York. During the film, she struggles with her complicated sibling relationship and her sanity. This movie showed how far Woody Allen had come from his previous slapstick comedies.
During one high-charged filming sequence in the 1968 thriller, Bullitt, San Francisco Police detective Frank Bullitt is entrusted by Chicago mobster Johnny Ross until he can get a testimony. The film was shot entirely in the Bay Area and involves corruption, hit men, mobsters and police bureaucracy, the making of an exceptional film. Filming locations include, Enrico’s café on Broadway, the Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill and Mark Hopkins Hotel.
Directed by Delmer Daves’, Dark Passage is an interesting film in that the first ten minutes are viewed from the eyes of Humphrey Bogart. This technique was later adopted for all of The Lady in the Lake by Robert Montgomery. The plot follows a man that has been convicted of killing his wife and he escapes prison in San Quentin but is aided by Lauren Bacall through his journey. In the late 1940’s, filmmakers did much more location shooting instead of just sets so many San Francisco sites can been seen in the movie.
Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart
Set in the Chinatown neighborhood of San Francisco, Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart follows the travels of a Chinese immigrant widow, Mrs. Tam, as she copes with her sometimes helpful brother-in-law and unmarried daughter. Mrs. Tam aspires to return to China for a final visit before she dies and reconnect with ancestors as well as the history of her people. The film takes an in-depth look at the challenges faced by Chinese-American immigrants and is especially relevant today. In San Francisco, there are many immigrants from the Pacific Rim.
The director was Wayne Wang, a Hong Kong-born filmmaker who released the Joy Luck Club in 1995 and Chang is Missing in 1982. Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart is often an overlooked film that was set and filmed in San Francisco during the summer of 1985.
Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood, has one of the most memorable quotes on the big screen, “Do you feel lucky, punk?” This was shot on Drumm Street, in downtown San Francisco, outside of the Bank of America. The film has so many on-site scenes across numerous San Francisco locations including, North Beach, San Francisco City Hall, Golden Gate Park, Washington Square, the cross at Mr. Davidson and the Bank of America building.
Played by Edmund O’Brien, Frank Bigelow is an accountant in a small-town that has made his way to San Francisco regardless of the misgivings received from his fiancée Paula. After a night on the town, he ends up with toxic poisoning that gives him a short time to live. Therefore, he must travel to Los Angeles to find his killer. Directed by Rudolph Matte, this nightmare odyssey, as part of the film noir genre, has multiple shots around the City including a Fisherman’s Wharf jazz club and Embarcadero locations which play a major part at the beginning of his journey. This movie was remade by Meg Ryan and Dennis Quad in 1988.
Escape from Alcatraz
During its peak, Alcatraz Prison, located in San Francisco Bay, housed some of the toughest convicts in the United States including, Al Capone, prior to its shutdown in 1963 due to operating costs. The number of films shot at the Alcatraz location alone could have its own list including, The Rock (1996) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). However, Escape from Alcatraz, from director Don Siegel also makes the list of films shot in San Francisco even though the entire movie was shot at the prison.
Cline Eastwood plays Frank Morris who teams up with two other inmates, the Anglin Brothers, to escape from The Rock. The Warden is played by Patrick McGoohan who has the famous line to Eastwood, “Nobody has EVER escaped from Alcatraz, Morris!” Although you do not see much of the City, the film is best noted for the last collaboration between Eastwood and Siegel, who was his mentor.
Harold and Maude
Bud Cort, a young man that is prone to faking his own suicide, is shown the love and the meaning of life by Ruth Gordon. This 1971 film, directed by Hal Ashby, was based on a script written by Colin Higgins and was first set in Los Angeles. Ashby was pushing to have the movie set on the East Coast while Paramount wanted Los Angeles. As a compromise, San Francisco was selected as the filming location. Most scenes were shot on the San Francisco Peninsula in the area that become Silicon Valley.
One of the most memorable scenes in the film was shot within the ruins of the Sutro Baths which is north of the Great Highway and Cliff House. The location of the famous scene in which Harold and Maude sat by the bay holding hands was Emeryville Marina. The two are looking out across the bay to the City of San Francisco. Add Cat Stevens on the soundtrack and this became one classic film.
Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the United States, was gunned down with Mayor George Moscone by a disgruntled ex-Supervisor. As a result, he was subject to an incredible 1984 documentary known as the Time of Harvey Milk. In 2008, the story hit the big screen starring Sean Penn as Milk and James Franco, Josh Brolin and Emile Hirsch. The film was shot in the areas where Milk actually lived and interacted including, San Francisco’s Castro District and the San Francisco Civic Center. Penn was given the honor of the Academy Award for Best Actor due to his spellbinding performance.
Starring Robin Williams and Sally Fields, the couple agree to separate but Williams is not able to see his children. In an effort to spend more time with them, he dresses up as Mrs. Doubtfire, an elderly Irish nanny who watches the children after school. His plan works great until Pierce Brosnan enters the picture and romances Robin’s ex-wife. This is a hilarious look at love and life in the 1990’s and was set in the Pacific Heights section of San Francisco. The film also utilizes other filming locations around the Bay Area such as Bridges Restaurant in Danville and Oakland’s KTVU-TV.
Play it Again, Sam
Originally set in New York, a strike caused the team to change the location to San Francisco. Woody Allen plays bumbling idiot, Allen Felix who is recently divorced and attempting to woo women in the same fashion as his idol Humphrey Bogart. In a slight twist, he falls in love with his best friend’s wife resulting in humor and heartbreak. There are many great scenes set in the Bay Area.
Staring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson, Point Blank is a 1967 neo-noir thriller that starts and ends in Alcatraz where Lee Marvin’s hired killed is double-crossed and sitting for dead. Although the majority of the movie was set in Los Angeles, Point Blank has multiple memorable scenes at the prison and Fort Point. Since its release, the film has gained a significant cult following. Many enthusiasts argue that the entire film is set from the point of view of the killer but is a dying fantasy. The movie can be brutally violent at times and features an exceptional supporting cast including, Keenan Wynn, Carroll O’Conner, Lloyd Bochner and John Vernon.
There is no memorable list of San Francisco films without the movie San Francisco. Featuring Jeanette MacDonald and Clark Gable, the story is about the City of San Francisco during the famous earthquake of 1906. Although there were a few scenes shot in San Francisco, most were shot on the sound stages of MGM studios which was typical for movies in the 1930’s. Jeanette MacDonald’s signing version of San Francisco became the city’s unofficial theme sound after this movie was released. However, in the 1970’s, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” by Tony Bennett took over as the city’s theme song.
Bay Area filmmaker Francis Coppolla followed up on the success of The Godfather with The Conversation, a Watergate-era thriller that involves master audio surveillance expert Gene Hackman who inherits the consequences of watching a young couple. One of the most memorable filming locations occurred in Fan Francisco’s Union Square where Hackman eavesdrops on the conversation of the young couple.
The Lady from Shanghai
The Lady from Shanghai is a film that is only partially set in San Francisco. Created by Orson Welles, this 1948 thriller has many excellent scenes in the City. Tough Irish sailor, Michael O’Hara, is hired to be on the yacht of a lawyer and his wife as they sail to San Francisco. During the journey, they pick up the lawyer’s weird law partner and, once they arrive in Sausalito, he proposes a scheme that will help him fake his own death. During the execution of the plot, he ends up dead and the lawyer is accused of murder.
There is one famous scene in which Michael hides out in Chinatown San Francisco at the Kabuki Theater and a hall of mirrors funhouse sequence. This film is one of Orson Welles’ best accomplishments and, although nobody can explain the plot to this day, is an excellent movie as a result.
The Maltese Falcon
The Writer of The Maltese Falcon lived in San Francisco and visited area restaurants like John’s Grill in Union Square, this was the ideal location for the movie which became one of his most famous stories. The 1941 adaptation had Humphrey Bogart playing Sam Spade, a detective who was involved in a complicated plot of deceit and greed. The Maltese Falcon is considered to be the original classic film noir. The original directorial effort had no location footage in the City of San Francisco other than the opening montage which established the shots. However, this is such an incredible list to be part of the list.
Time after Time
Time After Time has an intriguing plot twist involving writer H.G. Wells (portrayed as Malcolm McDowell, who takes a time travel trip from 1880’s London to 1979 San Francisco where he is searching for Jack the Ripper. He is assisted by Mary Steenburgen during his travels and the film is fun and creative but also boasts some of the best on-site location shooting in late 1970’s San Francisco such as the Embarcadero, Golden Gate Park, the Marina District and the Financial District.
Alfred Hitchcock was in love with Northern California shooting many of his best films in the area. The original novel was set in Paris and originally New Orleans was considered for the filming location. However, he decided to shoot in the City by the Bay which boasted a colorful palette of greens and reds to express emotional states by different characters. Vertigo is the study of those people who are physically or emotionally on the edge of life.
This 1982 blockbuster hit by the mind of director Walter Hill follows the story of a strangely matched couple. Nick Nolte plays a cop who is searching for an escaped convict that has killed two San Francisco detectives. To help him track down the killer, he enlists Eddie Murphy who has a stake in seeing that the murderer is brought to justice. The director utilized many of San Francisco’s urban locations while mixing in several Los Angeles filming locations as well.