Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hills of Homicide:
The Mysteries of San Francisco -- Movies

(Editor’s note: We asked Kelli Stanley, the San Francisco author of City of Dragons [2010] and an admitted film noir obsessive, to name her favorite noirs set in her hometown. She sent back the article below.)

1. The Maltese Falcon (1941). OK, so it wasn’t really filmed here. Still, it feels authentic. During your Bouchercon visit to San Francisco you can stop by Dashiell Hammett Street, right by the spot where Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, meets his end. And there’s Don Herron’s fabulous Hammett tour, too. And of course, The Maltese Falcon is a seminal noir, faithful almost to the letter to author Hammett’s 1930 novel, with a superb cast (including Sydney Greenstreet in his first film role). It is arguably the best adaptation of any private-eye novel ever.

2. Vertigo (1958). I didn’t get it when I was in my 20s. Too baroque, too outré, too ridiculous ... but Vertigo is a film I’ve come to better understand and savor with each passing year. As a fever-dream of obsession--and a metaphor for the fear of death, which makes the age difference between Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak all the more richly textured--and as a garishly colored, hallucinatory, San Francisco-set noir, it stands unique. It’s also the most powerful personal testimony to director Alfred Hitchcock’s genius. Watch for scenes shot at Fort Point, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, and Mission Dolores.

3. Nora Prentiss (1947). If you subscribe to the most piquant definition of noir---about the characters being “fucked from page one”--then translate that sentiment into a black-and-white melodrama, the kind usually starring Joan Crawford (see below) ... add in San Francisco and Ann Sheridan, with cinematography by James Wong Howe and direction by Vincent Sherman ... the result will be Nora Prentiss. This picture also perfectly captures the honky-tonk atmosphere of the old Fisherman’s Wharf ... which you can still sense on an occasional Friday night, when the Bay wind floats a rich combination of fresh crab, beer, and desperation in just the right proportions. Not yet available on DVD, but be sure to watch for this film on TCM.

4. The Lady from Shanghai (1948). Rita Hayworth. Orson Welles. The movie that ended in divorce for Welles and Hayworth, and not just because he sadistically made her cut her hair and dye it blond.
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Exterior shots of Playland-at-the-Beach, the fabled but unfortunately long-gone Coney Island of San Francisco, and a brilliant, much-imitated last scene in the amusement park’s Hall of Mirrors (embedded at left). The classic Steinhart Aquarium. And shots of Welles running through Chinatown and Portsmouth Square (with a visit to the old Hall of Justice). Watch especially for the scene on Grant Avenue where he passes by the Li Po bar. That place is still there, and not long ago hosted Dominic Stansberry and I for a reading of Subterranean Noir through the auspices of City Lights Bookstore and Peter Maravelis, the editor of San Francisco Noir.

5. Thieves’ Highway (1949). Richard Conte could portray heroes and villains with equal panache, but his role here is arguably his best (with Mr. Brown in The Big Combo coming in a close second). San Francisco’s waterfront Produce Market--where part of the action is set--is now long gone, and Thieves’ Highway is a lasting testament to the city’s pre-suburb days. It’s also a stirring reminder--from the sublime Jules Dassin (director) and A.I. “Buzz” Bezzerides (writer)--about the labor struggles behind bringing an apple to market. You won’t ever look at your Granny Smith in quite the same way again.

6. Sudden Fear (1952). Joan Crawford, Gloria Grahame, and Jack Palance--what a cast! One of the best proto-feminist noirs around, Sudden Fear, like most of Crawford’s noirs, is what they used to call a “woman’s picture.” It’s
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suspenseful and deliciously played by all, and you’ll enjoy authentic shots of the city from Nob Hill mansions to Art Deco apartments. Go, Joan, go!

7. Dark Passage (1947). If you’re lucky, you’ll get to ride the very cable car Humphrey Bogart did when he and Lauren Bacall were filming. And of course, there’s the fabulous Telegraph Hill apartment where La Bacall lives ... and the memorable scene in which she drives an old wood-sided station wagon through the Golden Gate Bridge toll lane (everything looks exactly the same, but the price is considerably higher nowadays). If you do happen to cross the bridge, look to your right (heading north) when paying your toll, and you’ll see a round building. That used to be a restaurant in the 1930s and is currently a gift shop. (Watch a scene from Dark Passage above.)

8. D.O.A. (1950). A fun B-movie with some bizarre touches (such as the sound effects in the hotel when Edmond O’Brien is “on the make”), D.O.A. is also a great record of 1950 San Francisco and Los Angeles. Watch for O’Brien’s run down Market Street.

9. The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950). If you’re intrigued by Fort Point after watching Vertigo, by all means try this film. It’s a tight, well-paced little noir, with some fantastic scenes filmed at San Francisco’s Civil War-era fortress, directly beneath the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge. You’ll also get to see Spock’s mother (Jane Wyatt) play a femme fatale. And she’s got a cool house on Sea Cliff!

10. Woman on the Run (1950). Ann Sheridan strikes again, this time with Dennis O’Keefe. This is a fabulous, low-budget film shot mostly on location here, except for the scenes supposedly taking place at Playland-at-the-Beach. You will, however, get a close-up of Laughing Sal, whom you can still meet (and who apparently terrorized generations of children who saw her at Playland). Just head down to Pier 45 and walk into the magic of the Musée Méchanique.

Honorable Mentions
Devotees of the genre may note that I have failed to include Out of the Past (1947) on this list. Although it’s one of my favorite noirs, the supposedly San Francisco locations are not altogether believable (unlike those in The Maltese Falcon and even Nora Prentiss), which is why I’ve skipped it. Other films to enjoy:

The Lineup (1958), which includes a lengthy scene at the long-ago-demolished Sutro Baths, and a great car chase through the city--just about completely accurate, too!
Experiment in Terror (1962). Lee Remick drives across the Bay Bridge and we visit George Washington High School in the Richmond district.
The House on Telegraph Hill (1951). Sadly, Julius’ Castle--the famous restaurant on the Hill--has been closed since 2008.
Impact (1949), offering many shots of Nob Hill and environs.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t call attention to a helpful, pocket-sized paperback called San Francisco Noir (2005), by Nathaniel Rich. While you may disagree with his inclusion of a few films (Dirty Harry, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), the book is extremely well-researched and includes addresses from many of the locales in his list of films.

If you’re interested in film noir and haven’t joined the Film Noir Foundation, please check it out. Founded by Noir Czar (and this year’s Bouchercon Toastmaster) Eddie Muller, the FNF helps preserve films such as these from further deterioration and eventual loss.

21 comments:

Vince said...

Nora Prentiss is available on DVD from Warner Archive, the Warner Brothers made-to-order video service.

Kelli Stanley said...

Vince, thanks so much for letting us know!

I've got my own DVD-R copy, of course, but I'd love something with cover art. ;)

Kelli

Janet Rudolph said...

Love your choices. Seen them all..except maybe one of the Honorable mentions. who doesn't love the Fun House Mirror scene!

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks, Janet! :)I can't wait to read Murder on Russian Hill--one I didn't know about. It sounds absolutely fascinating (and could also help my own research!)

le0pard13 said...

One great list, Kelli! Craig McDonald's TOROS & TORSOS (from the great Hector Lassiter series) gave an interesting twist to Welles and the shooting of the climax of LADY FROM SHANGHAI, too. I'm happy you gave a mention to EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, it's a favorite of mine. I need to check out the San Francisco Noir paperback you mention. Given director Don Siegel's film history with the traditional and neo versions of the genre, I wouldn't argue with either Invasion of the Body Snatchers (especially given its distinctive noirish lighting) nor the iconic Dirty Harry being included in its inventory. Thanks for this.

Kelli Stanley said...

Thank you, Michael! I'm a big Lee Remick fan (loved Anatomy of a Murder and Days of Wine and Roses), so I liked EXPERIMENT, too ... plus, you get the bonus of a young Stephanie Powers.

I prefer the broader definitions of noir myself (i.e. Blood on the Moon, a western directed by Robert (The Set-Up) Wise, is also a noir as far as I'm concerned).

And you'll love the San Francisco Noir book! :)

Peter Rozovsky said...

Eddie Muller and James Ellroy found some inaccuracies toward the end of the car chase in The Lineup (not the very end, though). That's a shame. I was hoping Bouchercon could offer an accurate high-speed car-chase tour of the city for visitors.
==========================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Ali Karim said...

Can't wait to be in SF!

Kelli Stanley said...

Peter, I'm sure we can arrange something just for you--you thrill-seeker! :)

The commentary on The Line-Up was one of the most memorable, I think ... as was the car chase.

I love a good chase--Bullitt, of course, and for laughs there's Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc?

Kelli Stanley said...

And we can't wait to see you, Ali!! :)

The sun will be out by October, I promise! ;)

Jackerickson.blogspot.com said...

How about "THE CONVERSATION," starring Gene Hackman as the tortured PI and Harrison Ford as a heavy? Great opening scene at Union Square as Hackman film and records a puzzling conversation w/ gaps that drive Hackman crazy when he tries to transcribe. Who is the actress in that gripping opening scene?

Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelli, I rented "The Lineup" for Eddie Muller's commentary because I'd enjoyed his work so much on some of the other commentaries in the series. And Ellroy is good because his occasional moments of quiet insight resound like cannon shots against the backdrop of his manic schtick.

In re "The Lineup," if someone made up a T-shirt that had a picture of Eli Wallack on the back and "Caution: Falling Wheelchairs" on the front, I'd buy it.
==========================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Peter Rozovsky said...

That's Eli WallacH, of course. Never let it be said I don't proofread my own stuff.

Cormac Brown said...

Though it's more "neo-noir," please don't forget Point Blank.

Ali Karim said...

Nob Hill here we come!

Ali

Kelli Stanley said...

Jake, The Conversation is one weird and strange (and wonderful) film ... I love Gene Hackman in just about anything(even as Lex Luthor). :)

If I remember correctly, the actress is Cindy Williams, of later Laverne and Shirley fame.

Thanks for stopping by!

Kelli Stanley said...

Peter, if you find that t-shirt ... I want one, too. :)

See you soon in SF!!

Kelli Stanley said...

Cormac, Point Blank is awesome!! As you'd hope with such a great cast and a Donald Westlake novel.

Lee Marvin ... another actor I could watch in anything, from The Dirty Dozen to The Big Heat to (yes, even this) Paint Your Wagon. ;)

Thanks for commenting!!

Peter Rozovsky said...

Ali Karim said...
Nob Hill here we come!


San Francisco City Council has passed a resolution renaming it Knob Hill for the week of Bouchercon.
==============================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Ali Karim said...

Peter R, will be bringing a litre of Gordons, from London. The smell of Juniper in the afternoon is reviving, so lets plan picnic on Nob Kill, with Gin

Ali

Peter Rozovsky said...

Juniper -- That's right, I'd forgotten that gin is made from a fruit, the juniper berry. Gin is health food!
======================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/