Hollywood has long been in love with San Francisco: just over the past five years, the city has served as the backdrop for numerous big-budget superhero flicks—including Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Twelve Rings, and the Venom and Ant Man franchises. For further proof of SF’s current cultural clout, look to the small screen: Hulu’s Woke and Devs, and Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist were all set here. And let’s not forget A24’s prestige arthouse drama, The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
This weekend marks the debut of the long-awaited fourth installment in The Matrix series, featuring a death-defying scene shot high above the Financial District. The Matrix Resurrections will make its American premiere at The Castro Theater tonight, Saturday, Dec. 18. A number of lower-profile parties—including a Matrix marathon at Manny’s, and silent disco at Freeborn Designs on Castro Street—have been organized for those who didn’t make the ultra exclusive red carpet guest list.
Movies and TV production are big money-makers for the city, and the San Francisco Film Commission told The Standard in June that it’s hoping business will ramp up after a pandemic lull. Among the more recent productions: Showtime series Super Pumped, which tells the story of Uber and it’s frenetic co-founder, Travis Kalanick, debuts in February.
In anticipation of this weekend’s Matrix events, we looked back at the many roles the city has played on the silver screen over the years. While the crooked streets and steep hills make for great chase sequences, and the city’s pure beauty has obvious appeal, it’s SF’s place in the collective cultural imagination–home of the beats, the hippies, the tech industry and one of the most gripping cold cases in true crime–that has sparked Hollywood’s imagination.
San Francisco as Femme Fatale
Everyone looks better in the fog. In Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic 1958 noir masterpiece, falling in love is as lethal as falling off a building. Jimmy Stewart co-stars with Kim Novak.
The Maltese Falcon
This 1941 classic—along with High Sierra, also from 1941—is often considered Humphrey Bogart’s breakout role. There’s still a plaque near the Tunnel Top bar on the Stockton overpass, marking the spot where Miles Archer died… and, incidentally, spoiling the story.
The Lady From Shanghai
Sadly, no monument marks the Playland-By-The-Beach hall of mirrors that Orson Welles’ heroic sailor barely escaped in The Lady from Shanghai (1947). All that’s there now are chilly-looking apartments and the Ocean Beach Safeway.
San Francisco as Outlaw Haven
Experiment in Terror
Blake Edwards’ insidious thriller Experiment in Terror (1962) has a finale in the newly opened Candlestick Park during a Dodgers-Giants game. The psycho (Wild Wild West’s Ross Martin) runs amuck because the cops’ hands are tied.
Clint Eastwood faces off against a similar villain in Dirty Harry (1971). Don Siegel returned to his muse by the Bay to help this project, which enjoyed a four-sequel run and inspired one of the most iconic lines in cinema. Do you know it? Well, do you, punk?
The streets of San Francisco aren’t exactly built for speed—which, by Hollywood logic, means they are tailor made for white-knuckled car chases. The motorized ski-jumping never stops in Steve McQueen’s Bullitt (1968). Honorable mention goes to Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy’s 48 Hours (1982) and Another 48 Hours (1990).
A few years before Jake Gyllenhaal (allegedly) made off with Taylor Swift’s scarf, he starred alongside Robert Downey, Jr. in the last great color film noir shot in San Francisco—David Fincher’s paranoid, cat-and-mouse thriller, Zodiac (2007).
San Francisco as Zany Left Coast Locale
In the 1960s, SF was considered a bizarro mecca. There was a certain attempt, limited by film budgets, to capture the youth explosion here. One particularly odd highlight is the berserk Psych-Out (1968).
Back in 1993, San Francisco may have been the only city in America where you could convincingly tell the tale of a drag queen nanny without the police getting involved. This is also the kind of film that likely could never be made today, though director Chris Columbus recently revealed there is an R-rated cut of Mrs. Doubtfire floating around.
George of the Jungle
In this slapstick comedy of manners, Brendan Fraser plays the titular George who can’t quite figure out how to fit in among the blue-blooded San Francisco family of Ursula Stanhope—even with the help of his talking gorilla sidekick, voiced by John Cleese.
What’s Up Doc?
Motor-mouthed Barbra Streisand is the crackpot sweetheart in What’s Up Doc? (1972) which has its share of car-mayhem, and a gag of glaziers trying to get a picture window across a busy street.
LSD is a prominent plot point in this 1968 film. Featuring an eclectic cast—Jackie Gleason! Harry Nilson! Groucho Marx!—it is by far, the weirdest movie ever made in this city.
San Francisco as Last Line of Defense
A View to Kill
The second-worst James Bond movie, 1985’s A View to a Kill, finds 007 fighting greedy blimp-Nazis atop the Golden Gate Bridge. Grace Jones and Christopher Walken star as the baddies.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Though Rise (2011) may be the least of Apes reboots—James Franco just can’t hold a candle to Gary Oldman or Woody Harrelson—it does feature an epic fight scene on the Golden Gate Bridge. Spoiler alert, it culminates in an airborne gorilla taking out an SFPD helicopter.
X-Men: The Last Stand
The bridge is once again torn to shreds by the sometimes good, but often bad, Magneto and his army of angry mutants in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006).
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Perhaps the worst threat the city has ever faced: The aliens that captured the hearts and minds of humanity, in what may be the best non-Hitchcock picture ever made in San Francisco—Phil Kaufman’s 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The original novel was written in and about Mill Valley; a grim satire of the Bay Area’s long-standing tendency to fall for human-potential cults.
Richard von Busack can be reached at [email protected]
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