HARD SAN FRANCISCO

San Francisco was not and is not a romantic place. Supposedly Tony Bennett left his heart there, a lifetime ago. What happened is a warning.

In 1941 The Maltese Falcon purportedly was set there. Except for a few external shots, it was filmed in Los Angeles. The film portrayed San Francisco as nitty-gritty on the sound stages of Warner Brothers studios, Burbank. No love, Humphrey Bogart sends his love interest off for twenty years in the slammer, or to be hanged. Few movies before the Sixties were shot in San Francisco. 

That town was once a special place. It had an opera house and opera company; it has a symphony orchestra. it has a small drama community. There were movie theaters. It had small district for dancing and nightclubs. It was a commercial center, attracting shoppers. But by the Sixties most of that left the city or went to Broadway in the city, nightclubs were among the burlesque houses, except for Bill Graham’s Fillmore of the Sixties. Shopping moved to the suburbs. And driving into San Francisco became difficult and is expensive today. Los Angeles surpassed San Francisco in many of those entertainments and conveniences, plus it had the Hollywood Bowl, Forest Lawn and Disneyland.

Bullitt was the beginning of the end. It appears shot in San Francisco. It is about murder, corruption, political intrigue and cops. There was not much love in 1968. Yeah, there was a car chase shot on various streets of the city, in wide spread locations, not all in San Francisco.  Nothing in Bullitt made San Francisco iconic. The building where the salient murder occurred was torn down.

Nothing is iconic about San Francisco in Clint Eastwood’s, 44 Magnum Dirty Harry movies, except many are filmed in the city and are about murder, crime, corruption, violence, undeveloped political and social intrigue, cops and not much love. Women seem expendable, wantonly killed or roughed up. The city becomes a place of things, influences and events no one wants identifying or around their own towns. No one goes to the beach – there are not two girls for every boy. There is little sun, and the beaches don’t have consistent waves for good surfing.

Eastwood filmed on the San Francisco docks before those redwood piles and boards were dismantled and sold for secondary uses. What replaced that wood and connections to history and heritage were cement walkways and cement walls along side an asphalt road. Very civilized. San Francisco almost did away with Fisherman’s Wharf, now a shack to buy shrimp cocktails but mostly preserved on post cards. There’s a whole pier devoted to sea lions, not very good for fishermen but apparently a wildlife refuge. Go farther north to see a dainty marina: Sail a boat to Sausalito.

Freebie and the Bean (James Caen, Alan Arkin) was another cop movie where crime, violence, corruption and similar and sundry occurrences carried the story along. During a car chase as Caen is driving, Arkin asks, “Why don’t we stop for a cup of coffee?” So much for the big Bullitt ending. The chase stops when the police car flies off the elevated San Francisco freeway once sweeping from the Bay Bridge into a business district (torn down after the 1989 earthquake). The car crashes into an apartment occupied by an older couple eating lunch. That building has been torn down.  

Other movies showed parts of San Francisco, the best and most complete might be Walter Matthau, The Laughing Policeman. Yet again the city was a place of cops, crime, corruption and no love. Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase had Foul Play where an albino murderer is on the prowl. It is not the same albino homicidal freak that is in Bullitt. In 48 Hours Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte did not highlight the backdrop of San Francisco. I will say about that movie no one during the Eighties in that city drove a tuna boat.

Star Wars IV presented decent commentary about events, people and incidents in San Francisco, but much of that movie was set outside the city, in time and place – San Francisco of the future. But one had to wonder how to get to San Francisco two centuries hence, especially when Basic Instinct intervened, presumably showing the city, some suburbs and their bedroom aspects. Truly, Sharon Stone and Jeanne Tripplehorn did their best.

I left Alcatraz off the San Francisco list, but anyone can get there from any Bay Area port. It is a San Francisco Bay feature and story. Alcatraz is hardly a good sightseeing venue for admirers of the city. I have spent more than twenty years in the Bay Area, and thrice had my way paid to the Rock for a tour. Locals don’t go there, except movie characters for roles. It’s not romantic; no one has left a heart there, unless he was a convict who died. It is a place best seen in books or on postcards. Any current natural beauty of San Francisco is emphasized on that island – steel, cement, glass and bars. The island supports the impressions of San Francisco presented in the movies – crime, corruption, violence, and everything no one wants present in their hometowns. Add plastic, and those are all the ingredients of the present-day San Francisco with dozens of high-rises marring the land and blocking the views – almost 40 of 50 square miles of that stuff and nothing else, unless tourists pay to see what?

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