A Film Called San Francisco
   San Francisco as cinema
   by Timothy Dugdale

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.

The 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.

Alfred 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.

After 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.

One 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.

Harry returns 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.

Coppola 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.

Why 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.

A mere 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.

White killed 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 indulgences.

Special thanks to Hank Donat, Mr. San Francisco (http://www.mistersf.com) for his assistance with this article.

-- Timothy Dugdale

Buy the films mentioned in this article [click here]

Timothy Dugdale teaches in the Department of English at University of Detroit Mercy. He is also the founder of Atomic Quill Media.

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