When Robert Mitchum and Jane
Greer double cross Kirk Douglas in Out of the Past, they
take a steamer to San Francisco. Not Los Angeles. Not San Diego.
San Francisco. Later, Douglas returns the favor by sending Mitchum
on a wild goose chase back to the city to retrieve some dodgy accounting
files from an equally dodgy lawyer. Director Jacques Tournier presents
San Francisco as a series of shadowy, alluring interiors in which
no one plays nice. The emotional temperature matches the climate;
Mitchum is never without a trenchcoat. Knowing full well that he’s
being set up, Mitchum visits the posh pad of the crooked lawyer
who is enjoying martinis with his duplicitous secretary. They are
on the patio, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. The lights of
the bridge blur in the fog. Film noir never had it so good.
San Francisco of the noir era sits isolated on the edge of the United
States, open to those who are escaping from the rest of the country
and those scheming from the rest of the world. The Maltese Falcon
is an exotic object, a fake one at that, desired by a menegarie
of rascals unimaginable today. As in Out of the Past, the
city consists of a series of interiors alive with shadows and intrigue.
San Francisco, packed tight on foggy hills threaded with winding
streets and alleys, invites the mysterious, the hidden, the elusive.
Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo, is a love story
as only Hitchcock could tell one. Ex-detective Scottie (James Stewart)
is asked to trail the wife of an old friend. But trailing soon becomes
stalking as Scottie falls for the mysterious blond (Kim Novak) as
she takes him through a mysterious itinerary through San Francisco.
The blond turns out not to be who Scottie thinks her to be. Not
once but twice. Then Scottie isn’t who he thinks he is either.
Just as Hitchcock turns Novak into an object upon which Stewart’s
character can project his tortured fantasies of her, Hitchcock uses
San Francisco in much the same way. His rich Technicolor compositions,
clean to the point of anteceptic, strip the city of any grit and
character. The images belong to the taxidermy of postcards. Hitchcock,
the cold-hearted puppetmaster, renders the city as Scottie experiences
it in his growing disorientation – a series of fabricated
venues where the bogus story of the mad Carlotta plays out. San
Francisco is a figment of his imagination.
the Beats, after the Summer of Love, came Dirty Harry.
By 1971, paranoia had eclipsed the idealism of Keroac and Haight-Ashbury.
The first Dirty Harry movie in which Callaghan (Eastwood)
pursues a hippie serial killer, fuelled itself on the rediscovered
intolerance of mainstream America for the upheavals wrought by the
counter-culture. San Francisco had a new radical, stating his case
with a big gun and little patience for criminals or the system that
coddled them. Eastwood’s mentor, Don Siegal, uses plenty of
nervous long shots of the city , taken from the rooftops where Scorpio,
the killer, stalks his victims. Yet the same shots also express
the isolation of Callahan, the vigilante, trying to do the dirty
work of a society that would rather turn a blind eye but likes his
style nonetheless. Whereas Bullitt (1968) took full advantage
of the city’s hills to stage an extravagant tour-de-force
car chase rendered with jittery POV shots and quicksilver editing,
Dirty Harry flattens the city’s topography and draws out time.
Hitchcock’s voyeurism belonged to the troubled individual;
now it had a nasty sociopathic edge to it.
Harry deserves another: Harry Caul, the emotionally constipated
eavesdropper of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation.
Using Antonioni’s Blow Up more as an inspiration
than a blueprint, Coppola delivers a riveting portrait of a troubled
man paid to listen in on others people’s lives while keeping
his own as contained as possible. The film opens with Harry (Gene
Hackman) recording a young couple meeting fertively in Union Square.
Mission accomplished, he delivers the tapes to the tony offices
of the Director, an unseen bigwig perched high up in an antiseptic
office tower. But Harry doesn't like the looks of the Director's
assistant (Harrison Ford) and steps back from the deal.
to the tapes for a closer listen and begins to tease out a murder
plot involving the Director and the lovebirds. Beginning to fear
what might happen to the people he has recorded, his tightly wound
psyche begins to unravel. The tape machine and the microphone hitherto
have been his armor against the daunting world of emotions, yet
now they are punching through it, much to his dismay.
shot The Converstation in between the first two Godfathers
and on the eve of Watergate. Harry’s San Francisco is no romantic
tourist trap; it’s a corporate dystopia that is not to be
trusted, as cold and false as Hitchcock’s. There is no love
here for Harry even though he has a sympathetic girlfriend and surprisingly,
a gentle way with the ladies. Mitchum’s trench coat, emblematic
of a weary yet confident sleuth, has no currency in such a town.
Harry Caul sports a translucent, flimsy poncho that can hardly keep
out the prevailing elements of paranoia and moral torpitude.
For most of
the seventies, Jim Jones was the darling of San Francisco’s
progressive city council. He led a thriving church, The People’s
Temple in the inner city that performed much-needed social outreach
to the disenfranchised African-American community. He even served
on the housing authority. Jones was also a pansexual drug addict
with a powerful appetite for young flesh and ritual fantasy. Eventually,
as his San Francisco gig was going sour thanks to a paternity suit
and allegations of physical abuse, Jones decamped for the jungle
of Guyana where his cult disintegrated into a sweltering orgy of
brain-washing, concentration camp deprivations and apocalyptic visions
of nuclear destruction. The made-for-television film Guyana
Tragedy is not bad. Powers Boothe – who played Al Haig
in Nixon – eats the Jones role alive. He’s
big, he’s imposing, he’s seductive, he’s scary.
Alas, the film is too conservative and programmatic. It follows
the star-crossed Jones from his birth in Indiana to the short blaze
of glory in San Francisco and then onward to the outrageously bizarre
last moments of his ministry as his followers down the Koolaid while
Jones delivers a chilling sermon just before eating a gun.
has there never been a proper film about Jones and his relationship
with San Francisco, the city that embraced him? Charles Manson deserved
a TV movie (Helter Skelter) and nothing more. Jones was
a far more interesting character – the son of a Klan sympathizer
who preached the gospel of Civil Rights and social justice hopped
up on an apothecary of drugs and shagged his way through his dusky
congregation. If ever there were a subject for Oliver Stone, it
was Jim Jones. Stone has always fashioned himself as a mythic chronicler
of the complex, confounding decade that was the sixties. But its
ugly hangover, the seventies, fits much better with Stone’s
signature hallucinatory fantasias. Just as Nixon is a far
better film than JFK, one can only imagine how much more
interesting Stone’s version of Guyana Tragedy: The Jim
Jones Story would have been than his tepid Doors.
nine days after the Jonestown tragedy, two of Jones’ champions
on city council were gunned down in cold blood. Mayor George Moscone
and supervisor Harvey Milk died when a disgruntled former colleague,
Dan White, opened fire in their offices. The Times of Harvey
Milk (1984) documents Milk’s rise from a camera shop
owner on the Castro to becoming the first openly gay city official
elected in the country. The film is deftly constructed around archival
footage and stills, showing Milk as an endearing player in both
the gay community and San Francisco’s political theatre.
Milk and Moscone because they opposed his re-appointment to council
after White had hastily resigned the week before. The film, however,
sets White up as a hapless white conservative in cahoots with Anita
Bryant and the Moral Majority; they couldn’t stand to see
Milk and his kind out of the closet and attaining political power.
As such, the film resonates beyond one man and one city into the
country at large where the culture wars of the Reagan era were just
beginning. When White receives a lenient sentence for the murders,
the city’s gay population rages in the streets. The film’s
elegiac tone - that Mark Isham’s spare score echoes perfectly
– suggests that San Francisco’s moment of unmolested
gay liberation could not last. As much as the city stands apart
from America, America will not let San Francisco overindulge its
thanks to Hank Donat, Mr. San Francisco (http://www.mistersf.com)
for his assistance with this article.
Buy the films mentioned in this article
Timothy Dugdale teaches in the Department of English at University
of Detroit Mercy. He is also the founder of Atomic