Have you ever noticed how in some movies “sense of place” is so powerful, so much a part of the story, essential to it that this place looms as large in your memory as a favorite scene, actor, bit of dialog or a perfectly lit camera shot?
The city gate in a downpour of Kurosawa’s Rashomon; Berlin in Wenders’ Wings of Desire; the futuristic “L.A.” in Scott’s Bladerunner; the wheat fields in both Weir’s Witness and Malick’s Days of Heaven; the inside of a taxi in Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, L.A. in Polanski’s Chinatown; the bamboo forest in Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
There are three movies that stand out for me where San Francisco earns its place among the cast: D.O.A., Vertigo and Bullitt. When I think of them the images of the city are every bit as strong as my images of a striking opening scene, a particularly well-delivered line, a perfect camera shot a memorable character–in fact for me it is a character with an essential supporting role. Sure, others might have more to add to this list such as San Francisco (1938) featuring the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires but even given the title and some great scenes San Francisco provides location, history, context but, for me, plays no actual role.
D.O.A. (1950) directed by Rudolph Maté, cinematography by the great Ernest László. The story opens with a classic long shot from behind actor Edmond O’Brien walking down the hall of a police station to report his own murder. You see, he has been poisoned, there is no antidote and the clock is ticking. The story then unfolds as a flashback. While the story takes place, and was filmed in, San Francisco and Los Angeles both, it is San Francisco that I associate with this movie as a cast member. It is there the murder takes place. San Francisco is Frank Bigelow’s (played by O’Brien) destination for a one week vacation, it is here in a nightclub he is poisoned and it is here he discovers he hasn’t long to live. He stays at the Westin St. Francis on Powell St. There is a wonderful panoramic sweep of the city. There is a scene of him running down Market Street…the pedestrians are not actors, have not been informed of a movie shoot and their reaction is quite genuine, Maté nor László obtained filming permits. He rides a cable car on Market and the medical clinic where he finds out he has been poisoned is at Sacramento and Jones. Nob Hill, The Embarcadero/Ferry Building…Bigelow is a man coming to grips with his mortality moving around within these familiar spaces, in this landmark city and László captures both the man and the place as a whole, this wonderful location, this vacation spot plays a supporting role, in fact accompanies a desperate lonely man in his search to save himself.
I’ll not say much about the plot of the other two movies as they are better-known stories to most people.
Vertigo (1958) directed by Alfred Hitchcock, cinematography by Hitchcock’s favorite man behind the camera Robert Burks. Kim Novak at Fort Point underneath The Golden Gate Bridge? “Need I say more?” Actually yes. This is a landmark location but its role is more than a backdrop and goes even beyond setting a mood, this is a wonderful scene played by Novak and this secluded yet highly recognizable place two characters sharing a secret and both observed by Stewart. The city carries reminders and opportunities for “vertigo” with its elevation changes, buildings, towers, bridges. Throughout this film the city is often as haunted by Novak as the audience is and as mesmerized by her as is Stewart. Sure there are many other great landmarks throughout, Hitchcock’s Vertigo makes the basis for a great themed tour: Coit Tower, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Ernie’s Restaurant at 847 Montgomery Street (the restaurant is no more), Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill, Golden Gate Park, Mission Dolores, Palace of Fine Arts. Yet, what really pulls San Francisco in as part of the cast are the scenes of the characters, the city included, moving about one another trying to understand what is happening to themselves and each other. The city is alive, and plays opposite Kim Novak, Jimmy Stewart and Barbara Bel Geddes. There is a scene when Bel Geddes discovers that Stewart and Novak are together–she doesn’t create a scene, she drives away into the steep contours of the city and the city and the view are commiserating and playing to her matter-of-fact, yet injured acceptance.
Bullitt (1968) directed by Peter Yates, cinematography by William A. Fraker. I love one of the earliest scenes where Bullitt is sitting up from sleep but not yet awakened and curtains are almost ripped open splashing San Francisco sunlight across his face, his almost whiplash reaction is palpable. To me it is this characteristic San Francisco light through his window which is the partner that wakes him up. There are some landmark locations sure but this movie is all about the streets the elevations the views the impact the city’s steepness has on the cars during the famous chase scenes. San Francisco holds its own as a character in these scenes. There is a story about Fraker evocative of how crucial the streets of San Francisco are to this movie: apparently he was strapped to the front of a Mustang going 100 mph to best capture some of these chase scenes…we go from long shots of the cars to close ups of the drivers to relative close ups of Russian Hill, Bernal Heights, the Marina District. Here again is San Francisco carrying a role essential to this story.
Whenever I hear of or think of these three movies I see O’Brien, San Francisco, László’s magic with lighting; Novak, San Francisco, Stewart and San Franciso, McQueen, fast machines and San Francisco.