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The Best ‘San Francisco’ Films By Decade
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The Best ‘San Francisco’ Films By Decade

Picture of Ned Cogswell
Updated: 27 October 2017
Even though San Francisco has seemingly become the go-to destination for destruction-focused films (like Godzilla and Star Trek: Into Darkness), the city has a lengthy history of serving as a location for some of Hollywood’s greatest classics. Here, we will showcase and discuss the best ‘San Francisco’ films of each decade (from the 1920s through the 2010s).

1920s – Greed (1924)

One of the first major silent movies set in San Francisco is Erich von Stroheim’s seminal 1924 film Greed, an early horror-thriller film about a San Francisco dentist named Dr. John McTeague (Gibson Gowland), who wins a $5,000 dollar lottery after marrying his best friend’s cousin/intended fiancée Trina (ZaSu Pitts). After his best friend is wrought with jealousy over the loss of this money and his intended fiancée, he informs the city that McTeague is performing dentistry on Polk Street without a license. This forces McTeague and Trina into poverty and turns their story into a tragic, violent one. Regarded as one of the most important films of the Silent Era due to its complicated filming, editing and cinematography, Greed is certainly a San Francisco classic.

1930s – San Francisco (1936)

The Academy Award-winning 1936 film San Francisco is often remembered for its catchy music and powerful last act about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Directed by ‘One Take Woody’ W. S. Van Dyke and starring Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy, this musical focuses on a night club owner (Gable) who hires and becomes romantically involved with an unsuccessful nightclub signer (MacDonald). San Francisco went on to become the most successful film of the year and attempted to showcase an early 20th century San Francisco before most of the city was rebuilt after the earthquake.

1940s – The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Often called the ‘godfather of the film noir genre,’ The Maltese Falcon (not to be confused with the 1931 film of the same name) is heralded as a triumph of mystery, suspense and drama. This film was directed by John Huston (in his directorial debut) and stars Humphrey Bogart as San Francisco private investigator Sam Spade, who deals with various adventurers (including Mary Astor as the femme fatale) attempting to find a falcon statue studded with jewels. Little can be said about this fantastic film that hasn’t already been said, as it has effortlessly captivated audiences and critics alike since its 1941 release.

1950s – Vertigo (1958)

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most bizarre films, 1958’s Vertigo is the story of a San Francisco detective (James Stewart) who is forced into early retirement due to his extreme acrophobia (feat of heights) and sensations of vertigo. We won’t spoil the rest of the movie here, but let’s just say it gets very, very strange. Although its reception is mixed compared to Hitchcock’s other classic thrillers, it features some of the most gorgeous shots of San Francisco ever committed to film — and even if you prefer Hitchcock’s other films, like Rear Window or North By Northwest, you cannot deny Vertigo‘s influence on modern filmmaking.

1960s – Bullitt (1968)

Steve McQueen — is there anything else you need to know? Well if that wasn’t enough, 1968’s Bullitt (Two L’s and two T’s) singlehandedly defined the modern car chase and revolutionized the action-thriller. This film is directed by Peter Yates and stars McQueen as police lieutenant Frank Bullitt, who must serve as a bodyguard for a mob boss’s hothead brother so that he can testify before being killed by mob hitmen. Famed for its awesome muscle cars and burning tire car chase, Bullitt really has it all. If you want to watch a badass thriller starring one of the absolute coolest movie stars in history, look no further.

1970s – Dirty Harry (1971)

An excellent companion piece to Bullitt, Don Siegel’s crime thriller Dirty Harry stars Clint Eastwood as the titular character. We all know the famous line (which actually goes “Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”) and the infamous .44 magnum, but few really understand how this film plays into San Francisco’s history. Based around the actual case files of the real life Zodiac Killer, the film is a gorgeous San Francisco story that describes the crime and fear plaguing the city at that time. We can all think of a a few great Eastwood performance, but his original turn as Dirty Harry is one of the most iconic performances in the history of film.

1980s – Big Trouble In Little China (1986)

This cult classic fantasy-action-comedy bonanza by legendary filmmaker John Carpenter tells the tale of Jack Barton (Kurt Russell), a trucker who helps his friend Wang Chi rescue his fiancée from bandits in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The story then goes off the rails in the best of ways and introduces numerous supernatural elements hiding underneath the seemingly normal Chinatown area. Big Trouble In Little China is an impressive visual feast that transforms San Francisco’s Chinatown into a mystical fantasy land of sorcerers, magic, and truck drivers.

1990s – Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

Actor and comedian Robin Williams holds a very special place in San Francisco’s collective heart, and his cult classic family comedy Mrs. Doubtfire proves that he is one of the funniest men to have ever lived. Although it earned mixed reviews when it came out in 1993, Mrs. Doubtfire has become a Williams cult classic, and the iconic house from the film has become a San Francisco icon all on its own. When Robin Williams tragically took his own life in his Presidio home in 2014, hundreds of people flocked to the Mrs. Doubtfire house to leave flowers and kind messages.

2000s – Milk (2008)

Although there were numerous films that could have taken this spot (Zodiac was a close second), it is impossible to not mention this Harvey Milk biopic. Gus Van Sant’s Milk stars Sean Penn (in an Academy Award-winning performance) as gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk during his rise to prominence as the first openly gay person elected to office. This film is not just important because it represents one of the most important figures in our collective history, but because it shows San Francisco as a city of change and understanding. Harvey Milk will never be forgotten as long as San Francisco exists, and this film is an excellent testament to his life and influence.

2010s – Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

In the last few years, San Francisco has become a huge movie location, to the point where now, only a few movies actually stand out as real ‘San Francisco’ films. The big budget reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes does an astounding job telling a story about a non-human main character (Cesar, who is played by Andy Serkis), and although the film is not as much about the city as other films on the list, it does an excellent job of showing various parts of the Bay Area (Muir Woods, Silicon Valley, Downtown, and Bay Bridge) and letting these sites influence the actual plot of the film.