It's All About Place

The Bay Area is made for the movies. Twisted streets, Rembrandt shadows and light, trees and eccentric characters lurking behind them — this area is always ready for its closeup. The car chases filmed here can make us gasp or laugh: Bullitt or What’s Up, Doc? Hitchcock chose Santa Rosa for his own favorite, Shadow of a Doubt, then continued the local love affair by shooting The Birds in Bodega Bay and Vertigo in San Francisco. Film buffs can imagine stopping for a drink at Spreckels Mansion, aka Chez Joey, channeling Sinatra, Novak and Hayworth, then heading to Sam Spade’s Detective Agency at 111 Sutter. Or, in Marin, go to an American Graffiti–style sock hop at Tam High or just try and avoid that gigantic octopus on the Golden Gate Bridge from It Came From Beneath the Sea.

Musicals also found inspirational settings in the Bay Area. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song (1961) stars the scene-stealing Jack Soo as a fast-living Chinatown nightclub owner being coerced into an arranged marriage. Co-star Nancy Kwan swings down Grant Avenue, “the greatest street” she knows. I was blessed to be friends with the producer of this film, Ross Hunter, who was determined to cast as many Asian actors as possible and also to use Bay Area locations, including Twin Peaks and North Beach.

Moving a bit more into the future, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) used Marin and San Francisco sites to advance an unusual and timely conservation plot. The group ends up in 1980s San Francisco, with Spock and company trying to learn the lingo of the time.

Heart and Souls (1993) stars Robert Downey Jr. as a mortal whose body is inhabited by four lost souls. Charles Grodin, Alfre Woodard and a fine supporting cast have unfinished business with him and use the streets of the city to argue for their freedom. The cult classic Harold and Maude (1971) brought us a deadpan Bud Cort as a disillusioned young man who meets a vivacious 80-year-old (Ruth Gordon), and even Harold’s snobbish mother in Hillsborough (Vivian Pickles) can’t stop the love. The Cat Stevens music and Bay Area locations make this film timeless.

If you find yourself leaving Marin’s San Quentin, be sure to check the backseat — you might find Humphrey Bogart. Lauren Bacall and Agnes Moorehead also star in the murder mystery Dark Passage (1947). Parts of the movie were filmed on location in San Francisco, including on the Filbert Steps and on a cable car. The Streamline Moderne Malloch Building on Telegraph Hill stood in for the apartment of Irene Jansen (Bacall).

Every time I ride by the San Rafael Civic Center I think of the sci-fi film Gattaca (1997). The movie gives us a caste system of “perfect” humans, and even Gore Vidal shows up. Dark themes seem to go well with Bay Area locations, including D.O.A. (the 1950 original), Experiment in Terror (1962), The Conversation (1974), THX 1138 (1971) and Dirty Harry (1971). Other films are content to use our local backdrops just to tell great stories, including Chef (2014), High Anxiety (1977), Days of Wine and Roses (1962), Blue Jasmine (2013), The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), and Tucker: A Man and His Dream (1988).

Photos: Entertainment Pictures/Alamy Stock Photo (Bogart film image), United Archives GMBH/Alamy Stock Photo (Harold and Maude)