Good movies create a visual landscape all their own, but when the backdrop is intended to be so recognizable it becomes a character in the picture -- projecting a specific emotional idea -- filmmakers often head for San Francisco.
"People from all over the world have gotten to know San Francisco through the movies," says Bryan Rice, creator and occasional guide of San Francisco Movie Tours, which has been mapping the city's movie history for the past six years. Motion picture studios in Hollywood were constructed like factories, holding down production costs by using the same sets over and over again. As visionary directors tried to break away from genres that had grown generic, they found magic in location filming. And few cities evoked romance and mystery more than San Francisco.
At present, there is only one organized tour of the city's famous film locations, and it is directed, produced and presented by Rice. He left a corporate job seven years ago to turn what had become a hobby -- shuttling friends and family visiting from out of town to familiar San Francisco movie locations -- into a career. But to the extent that there's a script, it's written by the movies themselves.
Whether the tour's van is lumbering along the route of a slapstick chase, such as the one in "What's Up, Doc?" or matching the muscle car rumble in "Bullitt," Rice has assembled a trove of behind-the-scenes lore from DVD extras and hours of Internet research on films that figure most prominently in the tour, such as "Dirty Harry" (three locations), "Vertigo" (four) and "Mrs. Doubtfire" (three).
There are a few puzzling omissions. "48 HRS," the cop-criminal buddy picture from 1982 starring Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, is a no-show because there's so much foul language. Rice says he couldn't find a family-friendly clip to show.
Also missing is "Pacific Heights," the dark thriller from 1990 starring Michael Keaton, so firmly rooted in that upscale neighborhood that its location is its title. No explanation for that oversight is given, and to be fair, a city with as many picturesque backdrops as San Francisco conspires against the inclusion of every film ever shot there. But two locations from "George of the Jungle" and none from the Woody Allen comedy "Play It Again, Sam" suggests a movie map that has been purposely dumbed down.
There's plenty of smart stuff, too, such as Rice's explanation about the tour's first film clip from "The Birdman of Alcatraz," in which he notes that the Birdman, Robert Stroud, spent most of his 47 years behind bars at Leavenworth, and that he was never actually allowed to keep birds during his stretch at Alcatraz.
Seeing a movie's scenery on the video monitor at the front of the bus as it floats past outside your window feels at first a bit like a parlor trick. But as the tour rolls along, it's almost impossible for hard-core movie buffs not to fall into a rhythm of guessing the next film location. (There's a cheat sheet that lays out the entire tour, point by point, but if you enjoy figuring things out for yourself, I suggest you fold it up and put it in your pocket until you reach Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak in "Pal Joey.")
The oldest clip is from the 1922 comedy "Daydreams," which Buster Keaton shot in North Beach, hoping to ridicule the San Francisco police responsible for arresting his pal, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, and putting him through three trials for rape and manslaughter. Arbuckle was eventually acquitted, and the city acquits itself nicely in Keaton's mad romp through its streets.
Bay Area film luminaries such as directors Francis Ford Coppola and Chris Columbus get special attention, as they should, although here again, there are puzzling oversights. At the Civic Center, for instance, we see a location from the 1978 remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," but no mention is made of director Philip Kaufman, a longtime resident of San Francisco.
Much of the movie tour would fit comfortably into any tour of the city's neighborhoods, and in that sense, it's nice to have an organizing principle to justify flitting from Nob Hill to Alamo Square. It's surprisingly easy to lose track of where you actually are, missing beautiful scenery right outside the window while you watch a clip from a cheesy Bond movie like "A View to a Kill." The "Bullitt" car chase gets a nice, long run, but the other movie that gets a long clip is "The Rock," director Michael Bay's ghastly action fantasia from 1996.
Unconstrained by the shushing that goes on in an actual movie house, participants in the tour tend to let their inner film critic become outer. The day I took the tour, a man from San Jose who was there with his wife and another couple berated Sofia Coppola's "Lost In Translation," which wasn't even on the tour. And across the aisle, a man from New Zealand had it in for another member of the Coppola clan -- Nicolas Cage, star of "The Rock" and far too many other movies to suit the Cage-free Kiwi.
To keep the tour from going longer than three hours, when new films are added to the route -- and to the clip reel -- something else usually falls by the wayside. There are some "highlights" from movies you likely never heard of, but those aren't always the first to go if they happen someplace geographically desirable. The Mission district is skipped entirely to hold down the tour's running time, and when a scene from the most recent Woody Allen film, "Blue Jasmine," was added two weeks ago, it was one shot near Union Square because that was already on the tour. Scenes filmed in the Mission didn't make the cut.
The most famous house on the tour -- maybe the most famous house in San Francisco, a city filled with historic homes owned by robber barons and captains of industry -- is the "Mrs. Doubtfire" house in Pacific Heights. As tour guides like to demonstrate, it is also one of the easiest landmarks to find, because in the movie Sally Field's character, Miranda Hillard, gives the house's actual address: 2640 Steiner St.
Rice knows that even classic movies don't remain classic forever, as new audiences come along and reject great films such as "The Maltese Falcon," which gets only a brief nod on the current tour. "At what point does 'Dirty Harry' become irrelevant to movie audiences?" he asks. "The first 'Dirty Harry' was released in 1971. At what point are people going to go, 'That was 43 years ago'?"
Just in case, he's considering a movie tour designed specifically for senior citizens. It might drop "Monsters vs. Aliens" in favor of "The Lady From Shanghai," although not even that would bring back Playland at the Beach, where the famous house of mirrors scene was shot. Some landscapes can only be visited at the movies.
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him at twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit
IF YOU GO
The San Francisco Movie Tours run a van daily for most of the year, with more frequent tours during the busy tourist months of July and August.
Times: The three-hour tour starts at 10:30 a.m. at Pier 43-1/2 at Fisherman's Wharf, with earlier passenger pickups at Union Square and Nob Hill.
Tickets: $47 adults; $37 for children 5-17, students 18-22 with valid student ID and seniors 65-plus. Advance reservations are a must; go to www.sanfranciscomovietours.com for details and group rates.