Sign In
Top 10 Iconic San Francisco Movies
Save to wishlist

Top 10 Iconic San Francisco Movies

Picture of Justice Boles
Updated: 5 January 2017
It goes without saying that San Francisco has a rich history of films. This list seeks to highlight the films that do a great job of capturing the presence of San Francisco, not the ones that merely destroy the Golden Gate Bridge. So, in no particular order, here are 10 of the most iconic films set in San Francisco.
Screenshot of Greed | © Erich von Stroheim/WikiCommons
Screenshot of Greed | © Erich von Stroheim/WikiCommons


Greed is a silent film based on the great American novel McTeague by Frank Norris. It centers on unlicensed dentist McTeague and his wife, Trisha, as their lives slowly descend into primal madness as a result of winning the lottery. Greed is MGM’s first feature film and is the first film to be shot entirely on location, mostly on Polk Street and infamously in Death Valley, with more than 80 hours of footage. For added fun, check out McTeague’s Saloon on Polk Street, right down the block from Frank Norris Street.

Dirty Harry | © Joxin/Flickr
Dirty Harry | © Joxin/Flickr

Dirty Harry

Clint Eastwood is ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan, a cop that gets the job done — no matter what. The first and most famous of the five Dirty Harry movies has Callahan chasing down the Scorpio killer, a fictionalized version of the Zodiac killer. But really, does anything more need to be said about this film that already hasn’t been said? Instead, just check out Zodiac for extra credit.

Bullitt Mustang | © Wapster/Flickr
Bullitt Mustang | © Wapster/Flickr


The legendary Steve McQueen plays police Lieutenant Frank Bullitt who attempts to protect a witness from mafia hitmen. Bullitt’s car chase, being the first car chase scene to be filmed at real speed and not edited to appear faster, was the definitive car chase scene for decades. Before Fast and Furious drove cars through Abu Dhabi skyscrapers, Bullitt made it from the Marina to San Bruno in mere minutes.

The Maltese Falcon

Before Harry Callahan, before Frank Bullitt, there was Sam Spade. Humphrey Bogart plays Spade, a private detective working a simple case who finds himself embedded in a race to find the lost treasure, the eponymous Maltese Falcon. Based on the novel by detective thriller godfather Dashiell Hammet, The Maltese Falcon is one of the definitive film noir. Hammett himself was a Pinkerton detective based in San Francisco, and his serialized detective stories serve as bedrock for mystery, detective, and noir genres, as well as many more.

40 Days and 40 Nights

After a harsh breakup, Matt Sullivan decides to give up any and all sexual gratification for Lent. Much to his dismay, his friends and coworkers find out and set up a betting pool, which threatens his personal life and budding relationship with cyber-nanny Erica. This is the least acclaimed and least iconic movie on the list and really only made it onto the list due to the frequency it is played on Comedy Central. However, it does have beautiful San Francisco scenes, one of which is the date between Matt and Erica that takes place on a Muni bus. Also, there are nice parallels between the dot-com boom and startup techies that make the film just as relevant today as it was a decade ago.


Considered to be one of, if not the, best mystery films of all time, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo follows Jimmy Stewart as former detective John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson — jeez, another detective? — as he’s hired to follow a friend’s allegedly possessed wife. The job is not all it seems, and Scottie quickly gets in over his head. Vertigo involves many famous SF landmarks like Mission Dolores, The Palace of the Legion of Honor, and perhaps most famously, the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Joy Luck Club

Based on Amy Tan’s best-selling novel of the same name, The Joy Luck Club follows four Chinese immigrant women that start life anew in San Francisco and the trials and tribulations of raising their American-born daughters. This film is notable for being one of the first Hollywood films with an all Asian cast. It’s a refreshing break from disgraced detectives or bridge-collapsing terror and does a good job of tugging at the heartstrings.

Fog City Diner | © Atlant/WikiCommons
Fog City Diner | © Atlant/WikiCommons

So I Married an Axe Murderer

Beat poet Charlie McKenzie, played by Mike Myers, finds himself infatuated with a woman who’s had several husbands die mysterious, violent deaths. This one is a great twist on the San Francisco mystery trope, but this time in comedy form. There’s even a nice tour of Alcatraz in the film, and without a pharmaceutical mutant-curing facility or nerve gas missiles, it’s easily the most accurate representation of modern-day Alcatraz in cinema.

Star Trek IV

The 2nd best Star Trek film, according to Trekkies, or Trekkers as they prefer to be called. The original crew of the Enterprise must travel back in time and retrieve extinct humpback whales so that an alien race that had befriended the whales won’t destroy Earth — a pretty standard sci-fi plot. In Star Trek, San Francisco is the home of the United Federation of Planets, and it’s a nice juxtaposition between SF in the 80s and the literal center of the galaxy it would become centuries later. Also, the message of environmentalism is one many San Franciscans hold dear. Also, Spock deals with an obnoxious punk on Muni the way everyone wishes they could.

Mrs. Doubtfire

This one’s easy; Robin Williams dresses up as a nanny to get closer to his children. Are there other films that deserve a spot over Mrs. Doubtfire? Sure. But this spot on the list is dedicated to Robin Williams, Bay Area resident and world-famous funny man. Look at the outpour at the ‘Doubtfire’ house after his death. It’s said that during production, Robin, in character, visited a sex shop in order to buy a large dildo. If a man dressing as a woman to buy overly large sex toys isn’t the most San Francisco thing ever, then nothing is.