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San Francisco In Film Noir
Noir as a genre was really birthed in San Francisco, in 1922, when short stories by a writer called Dashiell Hammett began being published in literary magazine The Smart Set. It wasn’t known as ‘Noir’ at the time, these were considered to be, more or less, just pulp crime stories. But Hammett had worked as a private dick for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, so the characters and situations had a realism very rarely seen before in the genre. He was also a really good writer and, since San Francisco was his home at the time, he used many locations in the city by the bay in his stories. Soon other writers, like Raymond Chandler and James Cain, were also publishing hard-boiled detective stories in a similar style. It could only be a matter of time until the genre had been transferred to the silver screen, in a style that has since become known as Film Noir (at the time the movies were often called melodramas).
With the release of the movie The Maltese Falcon, in 1940, the new film genre made a triumphant debut. The story is set in San Francisco, but it was almost entirely shot on the Warner Brothers studio backlot in Los Angeles. Nevertheless it made a star of its lead actor, Humphrey Bogart, who became particularly associated with Film Noir. Soon other filmmakers were returning to the Bay Area to make their own Noir movies, chief amongst them – Alfred Hitchcock. He made two of his most famous films in San Francisco, Vertigo and The Birds (the latter being a horror movie, another genre of films often associated with San Francisco, that could also have its own article).
What is Film Noir? it’s often held that the main characteristics are a dream-like state, an unsettling strangeness, ambivalence, cruelty and eroticism. Generally these movies were black and white, with dramatic use of shadows and lighting. Most of the directors were Europeans, who’d moved to Hollywood to take advantage of the huge opportunities there and to escape Nazism in Germany. These immigrants brought with them the techniques of German Expressionism and, later, Italian documentary-style realism.
Why was San Francisco such a popular location for Film Noir? Its landscape and history were very suited to the genre. The hills, bridges and bay all make the city very cinematic and its background as a lawless Gold Rush boomtown gave it a dangerous edge. San Francisco’s Chinatown, with its connections to Asia and the East, figured prominently in many of these stories too. Finally, there is the fog. A natural meteorological phenomenon that is almost perfectly designed for Film Noir.
Bearing in mind that two of the most famous Noir movies, Out of the Past and The Maltese Falcon, that were at least partly set here did not film in the city, I’ve looked at seven other Noir movies that were filmed in San Francisco AND and which make stunning use of it as a location.
Dark Passage (1947)
There is a debate to be had about whether this thriller is true Film Noir or not, but it does have many of the genre’s elements – not least an anti-hero protagonist played by Humphrey Bogart. The film is noteworthy for being technically ambitious, the first quarter is seen entirely from the POV of Bogart’s character. There’s a memorable sequence about half-way through the movie when Bogart has to climb the Filbert Street Steps and, having done it myself a few times, I can testify to the fact that the great man wasn’t over-acting when he appeared to be dying of exhaustion upon finally reaching the top.
The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
The great Hollywood auteur Orson Wells made this fantastic Noir movie, one of his best (which is saying something), with then wife, Rita Hayworth. They were a star couple, although she was arguably the bigger one by then. The marriage was already on the rocks by the time filming began, but it was over by the time the reshoots were wrapped and they divorced not long after the movie was released. Wells had insisted on expensive location filming in San Francisco, over the then common practice of using a soundstage in Hollywood and sending a second unit to get some local footage to edit into the movie. Many locations around the Bay Area were used, including in Sausalito, Ocean Beach (for the famous climax in the hall of mirrors) and Li Po’s, the bar in Chinatown.
House on Telegraph Hill (1951)
Filming on this Richard Basehart starring, Robert Wise directed, minor Film Noir classic took place in the very San Francisco neighborhood that gives the film its name. In fact the park at Coit Tower, which stands at the top of Telegraph Hill, stood in for the garden of the titular house. The film’s plot involves a concentration camp survivor assuming a deceased prisoner’s identity, in order to gain a new life in San Francisco. I’m not spoiling it by revealing that it doesn’t end well.
The Sniper (1952)
One of the first films to feature a serial killer, The Sniper used a host of San Francisco locations, although the city is not identified as being SF. The director, Edward Dmytryk, had been blacklisted by the Hollywood Studios for having once been a communist, and this was his first movie in several years. The film is also notable for the use of psychological profiling in the plot, as the police hunt the killer of the title. The production made extensive use of locations around San Francisco.
Hell on Frisco Bay (1955)
Alan Ladd was a popular Noir star, having played the lead in The Blue Dahlia in 1946 (one of the first films to deal with PTSD). In this movie he pitches up in San Francisco after a stint in San Quentin for a crime he didn’t commit and has to try to clear his name. Extensive filming took place around Fisherman’s Wharf, before it had been turned into the tourist attraction that it is now.
Vertigo isn’t usually considered Film Noir, but it’s actually a great example of the genre. The director, Alfred Hitchcock, had brought many of the elements of German Expressionism to Hollywood, when he moved there in 1940 (he’d got his start in the film business in the Weimar Republic in the 1920’s). This classic is up there with the great director’s finest works (it’s one of my all-time top movies for sure) and has many plot elements of Noir – a private investigator lead, a beautiful and dangerous femme fatale and an insurance scam. San Francisco has rarely looked more beautiful, and more unsettling, than here.
Point Blank (1967)
By the 1960’s Film Noir as a genre was finished – ironically just as the name was becoming popular (it was invented by the French filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague, or New Wave, in 1946). Nevertheless, it continued to influence directors and stars and a new term began to be used, neo-noir (meaning simply new noir). This Lee Marvin classic was directed by another British director, John Boorman, who had only recently arrived in Hollywood. The film made extensive use of the prison on Alcatraz Island (which had only recently been closed at the time) for the opening sequences and was a big hit.
San Francisco Noir City Festival
This is one of the biggest Film Noir festivals in the world. It recently celebrated its 20th year, with screenings and events held at the Grand Lake Theatre, in Oakland (previously the event was held at the Castro Theatre). The Grand Lake is a magnificent movie palace from the 1920’s, so it’s a perfect place to watch these classic movies, especially when you consider that they were designed to be seen on a big screen. There’s a great ten day program, including double bills and talks. You can even dress-up as a femme fatale or hard-bitten gumshoe.
Investigate the Noir Underbelly of San Francisco
We don’t currently have any tours that fully focus on Film Noir, but our Notorious SF: Scandal & Crime Tour has many of the classic elements of the genre: crime, scandal, secrets, beautiful and seductive ladies and Chinatown (we can even visit Li Po’s bar).
For a list of famous movies filmed in San Francisco read this article.
If you have any feedback on San Francisco in Film Noir please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.
– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)
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