It's easy to fall in love with San Francisco. The city is a cornucopia of iconic sights: the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Fort Point, Coit Tower, and so many other landmarks. With an aura born of Gold Rush history and steeped in mid-20th century turbulence, it's little wonder the City by the Bay has become a visual and atmospheric staple for the film industry. Setting a cinematic mood with such unique locations and memorable views is unparalleled.
A popular choice for filmmakers, San Francisco is also home to Mechanics' Institute Library, with its large collection of both classic and modern films shot on location in the city. We hope you'll enjoy this staff-curated selection of films available for checkout either on DVD or through the library's Kanopy streaming service. Each movie serves up San Francisco at its finest, including several locations -- Playland, Candlestick Park, the Embarcadero Freeway and the Orange Grove Restaurant -- long gone but not forgotten.
Note: If you'd like to know more about Kanopy, don't miss our July 19 workshop on how to use this wonderful resource to find classic films, documentaries and classes on demand.
Bullitt - Shot almost entirely on location in San Francisco, this 1968 film stars Steve McQueen and Jacqueline Bissett. Police detective Lieutenant Frank Bullitt is assigned to protect an important police witness in a mob investigation. The famous Mustang and Dodge Charger car scene that took two weeks to film runs from Bernal Heights past Potrero Hill, North Beach, Russian Hill, all the way to Brisbane. But that's not all, this is a classic film featuring a wide swath of San Francisco sights, including the Mark Hopkins Hotel, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco General Hospital and more.
Dark Passage - A man unjustly accused of killing his wife escapes from San Quentin and sets out to clear his name. This 1947 noir classic stars Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart and is based on the novel by the same name written by David Goodis. Filming locations that contributed to this atmospheric record of mid-century San Francisco include the Waldo Tunnel and Golden Gate Bridge, the Pickwick Hotel on 5th Street, San Quentin Prison and the Filbert Street Steps on Telegraph Hill.
Dirty Harry - Clint Eastwood's role as Harry Callahan, a hard-boiled San Francisco cop who delivers vigilante-style justice elevated him to iconic status. This 1971 movie about the hunt for a psychopath who kidnaps a young girl was a huge box-office hit that spawned four sequels: Magnum Force in 1973, The Enforcer in 1976, Sudden Impact in 1983, and The Dead Pool in 1988. Directed by Don Siegel, viewers will see glimpses of Montgomery Street in the Financial District, Saints Peter and Paul Church in North Beach, the Holiday Inn Chinatown (now the Hilton Financial Center), and the Mayor's Office at the City Hall in Civic Center.
Experiment in Terror - Based on the 1961 book Operation Terror, a bank teller is terrorized by a psychopath to steal money from her employer. This 1962 film starring Lee Remick has shots of Varni's Roaring Twenties, George Washington High School, the former Orange Grove Restaurant (now the Crocker Galleria across from Mechanics' Institute), and a breathless view of the former Bay Bridge as the movie opens. The exciting finale features a showdown at Candlestick Park.
Foul Play - In this 1978 comedy charmer, a shy San Francisco librarian (Goldie Hawn) and a clumsy detective (Chevy Chase) fall in love as they attempt to solve a crime involving dwarfs, albinos, and the Catholic church in a plot to kill the pope. The fast-paced chase scenes take viewers on a whirlwind tour of Noe Valley, the Mission District, Hayes Valley, and Pacific Heights. There is also footage of Fort Mason, the Presidio and Golden Gate National Park.
The House on Telegraph Hill - Based on the 1948 thriller The Frightened Child by Dana Lyon, a Polish survivor of a World War II concentration camp assumes the identity of a fellow inmate who died shortly before liberation. She settles in San Francisco and pretends to be the mother to her late friend's son who was too young to recognize the deception. Viewers will be treated to scenes of the cliff-hanging Julius Castle Restaurant, the Crocker Building (now the Aetna Building) at One Post Street and the base of Coit Tower.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1978 - This remake of the 1956 science fiction classic set in a small Southern California town was moved to San Francisco where a majority of the movie was filmed. Starring Donald Sutherland and Jeff Goldblum, the story follows an endangered alien life form that sends out spores from a doomed world in search of a new home. Scary stuff, yes, but viewers will enjoy shots of Pier 33, Beppino's Restaurant, the Condor Club, and Lafayette Park in Pacific Heights and more.
Lady From Shanghai - This 1948 noir classic starring Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth tells the story of a sailor who becomes involved in the murderous intrigue of a disabled lawyer and his homicidal wife. The film has shots of the old Steinhart Aquarium pre-renovation, the Walhalla Bar at 201 Bridgeway (currently vacant) and an iconic climactic scene at now defunct Playland Fun House.
The Penalty (Streams on Kanopy) - Lon Chaney's first major role starring in this 1920 silent film introduced the "Man of a Thousand Faces" to a national audience. Originally based on a 1913 serialized novel by Governeur Morris, director Wallace Worsley chose to skip the story's sentimental style and create a movie emphasizing lust, murder and corruption. Chinatown, the Old Hall of Justice on Kearny Street, St. Mary's Hospital, and the Financial District appear in the movie.
Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home - A considerable portion of this 1986 film was shot in San Francisco and it is kind of thrilling to imagine that Starfleet's 20th-century headquarters might be based in Golden Gate Park. Branded as fugitives by the Federation they swore to protect, the crew of the USS Enterprise returns to Earth to face crimes committed while trying to rescue Spock. Enterprise crew actors can be seen walking on Marina Boulevard, Marina Green Park, and Kearny, Pacific and Columbus streets. There's also a quick pass across Grant Avenue as well.
Sudden Fear (Streams on Kanopy) - Joan Crawford and Jack Palance were both nominated for Oscars in this 1952 film noir gem about a wealthy female playwright who marries an actor to discover later that he's planning her demise with the help of his lover (Gloria Grahame). You'll find thrilling footage of the city, including Lombard Street, War Memorial Opera House, The Tamalpais apartments on Russian Hill and the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Also available for check out on DVD.
Thieves' Highway - If you've ever wondered what the area around Embarcadero Center used to look like before it was built, this 1949 movie will show you the old Produce district south of Market. Ex-G.I. Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) sets out to avenge his father's tormentor, a ruthless produce merchant. But as Nick is drawn into the San Francisco produce racket, he lands in a web of treachery and heartbreak. Shot in just 30 days, this excellent film features footage of Embarcadero under the Bay Bridge and near China Basin as well as the Ferry Building.
Walk a Crooked Mile - This 1948 documentary-narrated style film tapped into the 'red scare' paranoia that reached its heights during the McCarthy era. The movie begins as a young FBI agent investigating leaks of atomic information from a nuclear research laboratory is killed and his boss follows the murder suspect to San Francisco. Viewers will recognize many familiar locations including Union Square, Chinatown and Yerba Buena Island.
Woman on the Run - Directed by Norman Foster, the majority of this 1950 film noir was shot in San Francisco. After witnessing a gangland execution, a man goes into hiding. Police stalk his wife hoping she'll lead them to her husband whose testimony could bring down a crime kingpin. There is much to discover in terms of historic views -- the Top O' the Mark, the Emporium at 845 Market between 4th and 5th, Pioneer Park, Pier 43 with shots of Laughing Sal -- to name a few. This film streams on Kanopy (click on the link to access from our website) and is the only American print of the one that burned in a 2008 fire, now rescued and restored to its original luster.
Zodiac - (Streams on Kanopy) This 2007 crime thriller about the real Zodiac killer who terrorized San Francisco with a string of random murders during the 1960s and 1970s features an all star cast including Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. While the search for the killer's true identity was a long and tortuous journey, viewers won't have to wait for glimpses of Morti's Bar on Minna Street, The San Francisco Chronicle newsroom and other Bay Area locations. Also available for check out on DVD.