Written by Gustavus Kundahl

In the early 1940s, as World War II swept across Europe, the American gangster film of the 1930s seemed to evolve into something darker, more complex, and permeated with existential dread. When French film critics first viewed new American films like The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder My Sweet (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), and Laura (1944) after the war ended, the term film noir was coined to describe them. The flood of films that would later be considered film noir was unprecedented, lasting from the early 1940s until the late 1950s. The era of film noir can be conveniently bookended by two San Francisco noir classics, beginning in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon and ending with Vertigo (1958).

Despite being much smaller than New York or Los Angeles, San Francisco was destined to become a major setting in the film noir oeuvre. Since Dashiell Hammett first pounded out the novel version of The Maltese Falcon in 1928, under a cloud of cigarette smoke at 891 Post Street, the city has been mythologized as romantic and menacing, like the fog that often conceals it. The mystery and dread are enhanced by the harsh but majestic landscape. San Francisco noir films emphasize the city’s steep hills, dark alleys, crooked streets, high and winding staircases, two infamous prisons, two breathtaking bridges, and more-than-liberal doses of Golden Gate fog. 

The wild history of San Francisco was another factor in its profusion of crime films. The city has a reputation for hiding those who have run out of options. The long history of tolerance and lawlessness, the Gold Rush, the rowdy Barbary Coast days, the political corruption and graft, and a long string of infamous criminals all ripened the city’s crime film potential.

Another advantage San Francisco had was as the gateway to the mysterious Asian continent. With the largest Chinese population outside of China and a strong presence of other Asian cultures, San Francisco projected the intrigue and enchantment of the Far East. Of course, the noir perspective was mostly interested in the violent, exotic, and lustful aspects of Asia, such as opium dens, the Tong Wars of the 1890s, and the Forbidden City nightclub era. All of these elements were exploited with exaggerated effect in San Francisco crime films.

Ironically, the film that focused most intensely on the geography of the city had the least number of scenes actually filmed there. When new director John Huston created the third movie version of The Maltese Falcon in 1941, he strove for the hard edge of the novel and its continual references to San Francisco locations, rather than the light tone of the first two films and their ambivalence to any geographic location. The film begins with stock footage of the city, particularly the waterfront view of the Bay Bridge, but all the other scenes were recreations of San Francisco streets built in the Los Angeles studio lots.

For The Lady From Shanghai (1947), Orson Welles focused on nautical aspects of the city, filming Whaler’s Cove and the Walhalla Bar in Sausalito, and the marina by the St. Francis Yacht Club. His spellbinding Chinatown scenes included a live Chinese opera performance at the Mandarin Theater, the Chinese Telephone Exchange, and a glimpse of the still existent dive bar Li Po. And though his Steinhardt Aquarium scene was a masterpiece exposing the common ground of hallucination and psychology, the truly infamous scenes in the film were set in the Funhouse of the now long gone Playland-By-The-Beach. The harrowing climax of the crazy mirror gun-down was so complex that it required highly technical sets to be built.

San Francisco native Delmer Daves got to use the screen’s most magnetic and charismatic couple (Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall) in Dark Passage (1947). Daves made great use of San Quentin prison for Bogart’s escape scene, in which his luck takes a great turn when a radiant and flirty Lauren Bacall picks him up from the roadside and sneaks him past a Golden Gate Bridge roadblock. Great shots of the old city abound in Dark Passage, including panoramas from rooftops, the Harry’s Wagon carriage diner, the Filbert Steps, the Kean Hotel, the Mission Street Greyhound station, and the first major crime scene set at Fort Point.

Considered by many to be the definitive film noir, Jacques Tourneur’s Out Of The Past (1947) features a confident, cynical and wisecracking private detective, an alluring and deadly femme fatale, and a megalomaniac mob boss. Though the crew filmed several nice scenes in Acapulco and Sierra Nevada mountains, the San Francisco it depicts is mythic and fabricated, like an exquisite noir nightmare.

Closing out the splendid decade of 1940s San Francisco cinema is the once forgotten dark jewel Woman On The Run (1950). Powered by the world-weary wisecracking of Anne Sheridan, it is a glorious vintage noir tour of the city featuring Telegraph Hill, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, the Embarcadero, and Washington Square. The film’s climactic rollercoaster scene is supposed to be set at Playland-By-The-Beach at Ocean Beach, but was actually filmed at the since-destroyed Ocean Park Pier in Santa Monica. The disturbing mechanical laugh of Laffing Sal was the now-vanished Ocean Park Sal. The San Francisco Laffing Sal still proudly reigns at the Musée Mécanique at Fisherman’s Wharf. 

Each of these films feature some mesmerizingly beautiful portraits of vintage San Francisco, real or imagined, and aglow in radiant, luminous black and white. Some people say that time travel is not possible, but when you become fully engrossed in these nicely-aged classics, your consciousness becomes fully immersed in another time and place. You might find yourself crooning a lost sultry jazz tune, entranced by a shimmering white cityscape, yearning for a snappy fedora, or developing an uncontrollable fetish for quirky 1940s technology.


The Top 5 San Francisco Film Noir Classics

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

First time director John Huston hit a thundering grand slam his first time at bat, adapting Dashiell Hammett’s classic San Francisco crime novel into a script full of fiery drama and scintillating dialogue, assembling a legendary cast of character actors, and instantly turning lesser known actor Humphrey Bogart a screen icon for the ages. And he got to sneak in his dad, famous actor Walter Huston, for a cameo as a sea captain who stumbles into Sam Spade’s office carrying the falcon and instantly drops dead.

The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

Desperate for cash to finance a stage production, infamous boy genius Orson Welles (now a troubled man of 32) accepted $50,000 from Columbia Pictures to write, direct, and star in a film based on a pulp novel he glanced at while requesting the money. He mostly ignores the novel and creates a dark, mysterious, and glisteningly beautiful black-and-white noir jewel, overripe with twisted and hateful characters and filled with startlingly innovative and compelling scenes. The studio was shocked and hacked out an entire hour of footage, the film flopped, and it was decades before it was acknowledged as the classic it really is.

Out Of The Past (1947)

Director Jacques Tourneur employed the quintessential noir actor, sleepy-eyed Robert Mitchum as a private detective. Sweet-faced killer Jane Greer is a femme fatale, and supercharged dynamo Kirk Douglas is a megalomaniac gangster, and together they create a pitch-perfect crime poem and the ultimate noir nirvana. While there is no precise and unanimous definition of what film noir really is, everyone agrees that whatever it is, this film is it.

Dark Passage (1947)

The radiant screen chemistry of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the shimmering black-and-white cinematography of old city on the bay, and an emergency plastic surgery on the lam power this adaptation of the David Goodis novel helmed by San Francisco-born director Delmer Daves. As if the plastic surgery bandages were not enough, this was Bogart’s first film wearing a wig due to hair loss caused by an autoimmune disease.

Woman On The Run (1950)

Vivacious and razor-sharp Texas beauty queen Anne Sheridan elevates this once-forgotten noir treasure into the realm of high art. World weary, cynical and sarcastic, and uncooperative with the police when her husband disappears after witnessing a murder, Sheridan’s troubles are just beginning. This faded gem was languishing in obscurity until the Film Noir Foundation revived it for the Noir City Festival in San Francisco in 2004 and restored to its rightful place as an all-time San Francisco noir classic.