Monday, June 11, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO NOIR: Guest Post by Paul D. Marks

Paul D. Marks:
San Francisco Noirs

When I talk to people about film noir they generally tend to bring up L.A. and New York as the best known locations for noir movies. San Francisco seems to slip under the radar. So I wanted to talk about film noirs set in and around the City by the Bay. Some of my favorite noir films are set there: Born to Kill, D.O.A., Lady from Shanghai, Out of the Past. And neo noirs like Pacific Heights. This is not an analysis of San Francisco noirs, just a few personal comments. Nor is it a complete list.


Born to Kill – One of my favorite noirs, but you’ll want to shower after you hang with this crew. Lawrence Tierney’s Sam Wild is an amoral psychopath, equaled only by Claire Trevor’s Helen. Elisha Cook, Jr. is terrific as always. This movie has one of my favorite lines of any movie: Delivery Boy: “My, that coffee smells good. Ain't it funny how coffee never tastes as good as it smells.” Arnett (Walter Slezak) responds: “As you grow older, you'll discover that life is very much like coffee: the aroma is always better than the actuality. May that be your thought for the day.” Locations include the Sutro Mansion and the Ferry Building.

Dark Passage – I had seen this movie 2-3 times and really liked it. I knew it was based on a novel but I wasn’t sure about the writer: David Goodis. Eventually, I went and looked him up. And started buying his books, starting with this one. This was before the internet, so I had to get the books the old-fashioned way. I had to hunt them down and buy them used as they were out of print. I started reading and fell in love with Goodis, called the “poet of the losers” by Geoffrey O’Brien. My fave book is Down There (aka Shoot the Piano Player after the movie by Francois Truffaut. Personally, I like the book much better). Dark Passage uses several terrific San Francisco locations. The most recognizable is Lauren Bacall’s apartment: The Malloch Apartment Building at 1360 Montgomery Street. Still there and still looking terrific. I love this place – I want to live there! Also the Filbert Steps, Filbert Street, The Tamalpais Building, Golden Gate Bridge, San Quentin (San Francisco adjacent).

D.O.A. – The ultimate “high concept” movie. A man finds out he’s been “murdered” (poisoned) and before the poison kills him tries to find who the killer is. I’ll watch this any time it comes on TV and if it doesn’t I’ll stick in a DVD. I like to have a fix at least once a year. Locations include, Justin Herman Plaza, the current site of The Fisherman bar/club, where Edmond O’Brien gets poisoned. The St. Francis Hotel, now the Westin St. Francis. The Mark Hopkins. Powell and California streets, the Southern Pacific Memorial Hospital, the Embarcadero. Various background shots. And as a bonus the amazing Bradbury Building in Los Angeles (semi San Francisco adjacent). 

Lady from Shanghai – A good noir by (and with) Orson Wells and Rita Hayworth that travels the world with a terrific climax in a funhouse hall of mirrors at Playland at the Beach in San Francisco. Other locations include the Mandarin Theatre, Golden Gate Park, Chinatown, the Steinhart Aquarium, Sausalito. I liked the climax scene of this so much I adapted it for my early website logo. 

The Lineup – Two stone-cold killers smuggle dope into the country via unsuspecting travelers. A good movie. I like it, but it’s not one of my faves. That said, it has a laundry list of terrific San Francisco locations. The two most interesting to me are the Sutro Baths and the Cliff House, maybe because they’re the least familiar to me. Sutro burned down, but the Cliff House is still there. Other locations include the Embarcadero, Steinhart Aquarium, Golden Gate Bridge and the Oakland Bay Bridge, the Legion of Honor Museum, the Mark Hopkins Hotel and more. So if you want a tour of 1958 San Francisco, this is your ticket.

The Maltese Falcon – A classic. What can you say. But the problem with many older movies is that they’re mostly studio bound. “Set” in SF with some background location shots at the Golden Gate Bridge, Bush Street, and the Ferry Building.

Out of the Past – One of my top 3 film noirs (with Double Indemnity and Postman Always Rings Twice, the Garfield-Turner version). Set in northern California, a rural town, Lake Tahoe and San Francisco. Again, mostly studio bound for the San Francisco city scenes. Mostly background shots for the locations. They did, however, shoot on location for some of the more rustic shots.

This Gun for Hire? – Based on a novel by Graham Greene. The first of 7 teamings with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, and one of the best, though my fave would be the Blue Dahlia (scripted by Raymond Chandler). Though partially set in San Francisco, the film itself is very studio bound and it doesn’t appear any actual scenes were shot on location.

Vertigo – Tied for my fave Hitchcock movie (with the Lady Vanishes, though Vertigo is the much better film). Set in San Francisco and along the coast. This flick is a surrealistic daydream, or should I say nightmare. The movie is a guided tour of 1958 Baghdad by the Bay. From Fort Point at the Presidio, where Madeleine jumps into the bay, to Scottie’s apartment at 900 Lombard Street. The Essex Club on Montgomery, which doubled as Ernie’s Restaurant in the movie. The California Palace of the Legion of Honor, where Madeleine visits the portrait of Carlotta Valdes. Muir Woods, Mission Dolores, Mission San Juan Bautista and more, all visually stunning in the movie.


Basic Instinct – Controversial Neo-Noir that makes use of plenty of San Francisco and adjacent locations. Another ramble through the streets of San Francisco that takes us from Catherine Tramell’s Pacific Heights mansion to Telegraph Hill. From Chinatown to Stinson Beach, Big Sur, the Hall of Justice, Steinhart Aquarium, the Embarcadero and North Beach, among many other sites.

Bullitt – Steve McQueen’s out to get his man in this one. You don’t need me to tell you what it’s about. Famous for its celebrated chase scene through the streets of San Francisco. Bullitt roars through Russian Hill, the no longer existent Embarcadero Freeway, the Marina District and more. Other locations include Grace Cathedral Episcopal Church, the Thunderbird Hotel, now the Clarion. Bullitt’s apartment on Taylor Street. North Beach, San Francisco International Airport, SF General Hospital, SF PD HQ on Bryant. And the usual more.

The Conversation – Francis Ford Coppola’s excursion into paranoia, makes use of many San Francisco locations, including Portrero Hill, where Harry Caul’s (Gene Hackman’s) workshop is. Alamo Square, the Financial District. Neiman Marcus in Union Square and Union Square. Cathedral Hill. And the usual mas.

Dirty Harry – Love ’im or hate ’im, DH will make your day. Harry blazes his way through a ton of San Francisco locations. I’m surprised there’s anything left of the city in his wake. He tears through Kezar Stadium, Golden Gate Park. Marina Green in the Marina District. The Holiday Inn downtown. California Hall. City Hall. The Hall of Justice on Bryant Street. Mission Dolores makes another appearance, where Harry gets off the street car to use a phone booth. SF General Hospital. Noriega Street, where Scorpio commandeers the school bus. The Roaring 20’s Nightclub on Broadway, where Harry surveils Scorpio. Chinatown. Washington Square, North Beach. The Dante Building where Scorpio is looking for a victim and spotted by a helicopter. 

Final Analysis – This flick doesn’t get great ratings, but I like it a lot. Richard Gere, Kim Bassinger and Uma Thurman in a twisty story that reminds me of Hitchcock and might have been something he would have done if he was still around. Some interesting scenes, reminiscent of Hitchcock at Pigeon Point Light Station in Pescadero, California, which I’d call SF adjacent. Bix Restaurant at 56 Gold Street, SF. The Sir Francis Drake Hotel. The SF Courthouse. Golden Gate Bridge. City Hall.

Pacific Heights – This is one of my guilty pleasure movies. Not really – I really like this. It’s totally creepy. Because it’s not all that far-fetched. I don’t think the Zombie Apocalypse is going to come and get me. But a creep like Michael Keaton’s character, who takes over your life, that can happen. While supposedly located in Pacific Heights the Pacific Heights house is actually on Portrero Hill. Also Chinatown, the financial district. And SF in general.

So there you have it. A mini noir tour of the streets of San Francisco.


Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-Winning mystery-thriller White Heat. Publishers Weekly calls White Heat a “taut crime yarn.” Broken Windows, the sequel, is being released on 9/10/18. His story Ghosts of Bunker Hill was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll. Bunker Hill Blues came in #6 in the 2017 Readers Poll. Howling at the Moon (EQMM 11/14) was short-listed for both the 2015 Anthony and Macavity Awards. Midwest Review calls his novella Vortex “… a nonstop staccato action noir.” The anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, co-edited by Marks, is nominated for an Anthony Award. And his story from it, Windward, has been selected for the 2018 Best American Mystery Stories (fall 2018), edited by Louise Penny & Otto Penzler, and is also nominated for a Shamus Award. 


jhegenbe said...

Nice list. Lots to chew on.

Roger Allen said...

No mention of Blade Runneer - future {though not for much longer!) noir.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Great review of my old stomping grounds, Paul. Lots of good memories unfold just thinking about those movies. Vertigo was pretty spooky during its time, and now it, along with The Birds, is entertaining in a different way. :)