With the bonnet of the sleek silver Mustang pointing to the sky, I changed gear and headed up oh-so-steep Taylor Street. Once over the crest, San Francisco Bay glittered in the distance. But with the “down” as precipitous as the “up”, there was no time to “ooh” and “aah”. Concentration was required as I followed the screeching-tyre route of Steve McQueen, as he played cat-and-mouse with the bad guys in the 1968 film Bullitt.
That 11-minute chase was more than exciting: it was revolutionary. “There were so many firsts in the film,” California-based stunt driver Rocky Capella had told me when I was researching the route. “There were over-the-shoulder, hand-held shots from the back seat, getting close-ups of the actors actually driving. And, when everyone else was speeding up films artificially, McQueen and his stunt double drove that dark green Mustang flat out at some crazy speeds.” No wonder, even after 50 years, that chase still sets the gold standard.
The footage was shot on vertiginous streets all across San Francisco, ending with a spectacular crash outside the city limits. Splicing it all together won Bullitt an Oscar for editing. Behind the wheel of my modern Mustang, I kept my speed sedate: unlike McQueen, I had to watch for cross traffic and absent-minded tourists. But I had a ball, especially on Lombard Street, nicknamed the “Crookedest Street in the World”. Here, flower beds double as chicanes and crowds wait to snap photographs — but not just of me. I was in a long queue of cars, taking it in turn to slalom carefully down the snakelike curves.
But San Francisco has more than Bullitt in its portfolio. The roller-coaster hills, the cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge have long inspired directors; and no one fell under its spell more than Alfred Hitchcock. This year also marks the 60th anniversary of Vertigo, his psychological thriller starring James Stewart and Kim Novak.
Many consider this to be Hitchcock’s visual love letter to the city. For the launch, he even took 125 journalists on a “Vertigo tour” of the film’s locations. Sixty years later, I joined a dozen film buffs for “Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco”, an entertaining, trivia-packed walking tour. Sites such as Union Square and the Brocklebank Apartments have changed little. As for the Empire Hotel, where Judy (Kim Novak) lived, its green neon sign has gone, but the fire escape still climbs the facade of what is now the Hotel Vertigo, which trades on the Hitch connection, with Vertigo running on a continuous loop behind reception and several rooms named for characters. But the two most requested by fans have only numbers: “You have to book well ahead for room 401, where Judy/Kim appears at the window,” I was told. “And for 402; crucial scenes were based on that room.”
Up on Nob Hill is the Mark Hopkins Hotel, with one of the city’s most celebrated bars: the 19th-floor Top of the Mark, with cocktails, tapas and 360-degree views. Even better, Tuesday nights are movie nights in summer and my stay coincided with a screening of Vertigo. Around me, the popcorn-munching audience was quiet, until Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) admitted that his acrophobia had curtailed his visits to the Top of the Mark. Cue applause and chuckles. By the end of the film, when Kim Novak tumbles from the bell tower, the city’s legendary fog had rolled in, wrapping the windows in a white cocoon. Hitch would have loved it.
And that’s the thing: wherever I went in San Francisco, I found links to the movies. Take North Beach. Long a bohemian enclave, this is home to tattoo parlours, the Beat era’s City Lights bookstore and Caffe Trieste, where Francis Ford Coppola wrote much of the screenplay for The Godfather. With the profits, he bought the green Flatiron-style Sentinel Building down the hill. His company headquarters occupy the upper floors; at street level is the Coppola family’s Cafe Zoetrope. With red plush banquettes and dishes such as spaghetti and meatballs, this is an homage to 1960s Italian trattorias. Movie memorabilia covers the walls: a Hitchcock poster here, one for Apocalypse Now there, and the Coppola family tree down by the loos. “Could I have that table in the corner?” I asked. “Sorry, it’s reserved,” came the reply. As I sipped a glass of red from Coppola’s Sonoma County vineyard, the waiter whispered: “That’s the boss’s table, ready in case he comes in.”
This is not the only restaurant with movie connections. John’s Grill has been going strong since 1908 and has the dark wood panelling to prove it. Aficionados of The Maltese Falcon book Table 21, author Dashiell Hammett’s favourite booth. In his novel, private eye Sam Spade asks the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes. I told the waiter not to rush; I was happy to peer at photos of the film’s stars: Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and, of course, the replica falcon. Always on the menu, Sam Spade’s Lamb Chops arrived pink and perfectly cooked.
So far, so traditional. But San Francisco is known for its trendsetting food scene. And nothing exemplifies this better than Foreign Cinema. Inside, this restaurant was buzzing. I opted for the patio where, at dusk, a plain brick wall was transformed into a cinema screen. As The Maltese Falcon began, I pulled a speaker (recycled from a drive-in cinema) on to the table and carried on eating. The local yellowtail was seaside-fresh; the sauce for grilled calamari nodded towards Mexico, with mole for depth, chilli for heat and lime for zing. Chef and co-owner John Clark is also a film buff with a sense of humour: “We get a lot of first dates here. If the date goes sour, you can always watch the movie.”
I knew that San Francisco was a city of film locations; more surprisingly, everyone I met seemed to be a movie devotee. And for many, a favourite destination is The Castro Theatre. Open since 1922 and still owned by the same family, this movie palace retains red velvet tip-up seats, an elaborate ceiling and a screen 45 feet wide and 25 feet high. A 30-minute organ recital precedes shows: new, old, foreign, pure Hollywood and even special “singalong” evenings. Yellow Submarine anyone?
Cameras are always rolling somewhere. During my stay, Keanu Reeves was in town to shoot scenes for Always Be My Maybe at The Fairmont San Francisco. Opened in 1907 at the very top of Nob Hill, this hotel has the marble, gilt and glamour of a true grande dame. Royalty, presidents and celebs have all stayed here and its cinematic CV could fill a book. Most memorable moment? “That has to be Sean Connery’s haircut scene in The Rock,” according to chief concierge Tom Wolfe. One minute Sean Connery’s ex-con is in the barber’s chair; the next he tosses John Spencer’s FBI director from the balcony and makes his escape. “We had phone calls galore that someone was dangling from a rope, 18 floors up,” Wolfe admitted. “What pedestrians saw, of course, was a dummy.”
The real star of The Rock is Alcatraz, the bleak island a mile offshore. Now run by the National Park Service, its 12 acres served as a high-security federal penitentiary for 29 years. Even on a sunny day, the place was chilling, especially the Cell House, where each prisoner’s “home” measured just 45 feet square. Dozens of films have featured the prison. “The most accurate is Clint Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz,” said a ranger.
For something completely different, I headed for the Walt Disney Family Museum. As well as learning about the story of Walt’s life and times, I discovered how Mortimer Mouse morphed into Mickey back in 1928. There are have-a-go animatronics, cartoons and Disney’s own model train set. Perhaps this artist, innovator and corporate head was just a big kid at heart.
That museum is in the Presidio, the huge army-base-turned-park south of the Golden Gate Bridge. Amid the greenery is another cinema connection: the studios of Lucasfilm, guarded by a Yoda fountain. “Anyone want a selfie with Darth Vader and Boba Fett?” asked Marie, the guide on my San Francisco Movie Tours bus, to the delight of Star Wars fans. “You can’t miss them — they’re life-size and just inside the front door.”
This is just one stop on a three-hour ride chock-full of clips, locations and Marie’s lively anecdotes. “In When a Man Loves a Woman, Meg Ryan is at the bar of the Buena Vista Cafe, famous for its Irish coffees.” Mrs Doubtfire’s house is “the only real address ever given out in a movie. The owners have been plagued by tourists ever since.” Then there is Alta Plaza Park, seen in the madcap chase sequence in What’s Up, Doc? This witty spoof of Bullitt has Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal taking to the hills — first on a bicycle and then in a VW.
From the silent era to right now, directors have shouted “Action!” in San Francisco. But the City by the Bay is far more than a backdrop. From Dirty Harry to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it has played a leading role in cinema. Maybe one day the Academy will decide to award an Oscar for Best Location. If they do, I reckon San Francisco would be a sure-fire winner.