Our culture’s cinematic love affair with San Francisco (and, really, the whole Bay Area) has been a long one. San Francisco, with its expansive skyline, instantly recognizable monuments, and dramatic vistas, is a cinematographer’s dream. The best films set in San Francisco use the city to its full extent, creating movies which are as amazing and iconic as the town itself.
The Best Movies Set in San Francisco: #10 Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) Though Birdman of Alcatraz doesn’t make much use of the city of San Francisco itself as a backdrop, the titular prison island is as much a San Francisco landmark as any other iconic Bay Area locale. Birdman of Alcatraz stars Burt Lancaster in what is arguably his best performance.
The Best Movies Set in San Francisco: #9 Dirty Harry (1971) Dirty Harry isn’t the only film on this list to feature a hard-nosed San Francisco cop (in fact, fully half of the movies on this list having leading characters who are either police officers or private detectives. What is it about San Francisco that makes it the perfect setting for cop movies?), but it does contain possibly the most iconic. This influential Clint Eastwood movie was filmed on location throughout the Bay Area.
The Best Movies Set in San Francisco: #8 Milk (2008) Rather than allowing the city of San Francisco to serve as a backdrop and atmosphere-setter as most of the films on this list do, Milk takes a look at the city’s culture and politics in the late 1970’s through the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California.
The Best Movies Set in San Francisco: #7 House of Sand and Fog (2003) Much of the action in 2003’s House of Sand and Fog takes place in a fictional and unnamed seaside town north of San Francisco, though the city’s climate and atmosphere still reigns over the movie’s mood. Jennifer Connolly and Ben Kingsley star in this quiet and suspenseful film.
The Best Movies Set in San Francisco: #6 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) Sci-fi fans and classic movie buffs alike hold a special place in their hearts for this 1978 movie. San Francisco is used to great effect and ultimately becomes a mirror for the rest of the nation’s self-absorption and paranoia in this horror classic.
The Best Movies Set in San Francisco: #5 Bullitt (1968) Conjure up images of San Francisco streets and chances are one of the first images that will spring into your mind is Steve McQueen popping over a hill in a green 1968 Mustang. Bullitt‘s car chase scene is arguably the most famous in movie history, due in large part to those icon city streets.
The Best Movies Set in San Francisco: #4 Harold and Maude (1971) Harold and Maude at times seems equal parts dark and moody, and effervescent and light. No other city in the United States so fully mirrors that quality than San Francisco. The Bay Area is a perfect setting for a film about learning to love and embrace the beauty in life.
The Best Movies Set in San Francisco: #3 The Maltese Falcon (1941) San Francisco’s fog and winding streets makes it almost perfect for a film noir. Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade is the prototypical hard-boiled San Franciscan private detective, and parts of him can be found in many of the other detectives on this list.
The Best Movies Set in San Francisco: #2 Zodiac (2007) San Francisco is more than just the background for David Fincher’s Zodiac. The entire atmosphere of the movie draws from the city’s energy and mood during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Zodiac manages to create an almost palpable sense of place and time, which only proves to feed into the film’s obsessive nature.
The Best Movies Set in San Francisco: # 1 Vertigo (1958) Obviously Vertigo was going to be number one on this list. How could it not be? After all, San Francisco and its various monuments (Coit Tower, Lombard Street, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, Fort Point) are nearly as important to Vertigo as any of the characters. With its Technicolor (or VistaVision, if you want to get technical) skylines and foggy atmosphere, San Francisco punctuates the dreamlike film better than any setting possibly could. Just try to imagine Vertigo set against any other urban backdrop and you’ll see just how important San Francisco is to that film.