San Francisco has no shortage of iconic landmarks or unique neighborhoods to explore, so it’s no surprise it has served as the backdrop for a wide range of films over the years. From heartfelt dramas to gripping thrillers, these movies have something to offer every cinema enthusiast, and reveal a lot about the City by the Bay’s vibrant culture and rich history.
Whether you’re a Frisco native looking to relive some of your favorite locales on the big screen or just a film fan catching up on a few classics you might have missed, let this chronological roundup take you on a tour of Fog City from the Golden Age to the 21st century.
1. San Francisco (1936)
Shot in black and white, this 1936 musical drama directed by W.S. Van Dyke follows the everyday life of saloon performer Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald)—until the 1906 San Francisco earthquake strikes. The film’s theme tune, sung by MacDonald, was officially inaugurated as one of two official city songs in 1984. San Francisco has often been screened at the famous Castro Theatre on April 18, the anniversary of the earthquake.
2. Vertigo (1958)
Director Alfred Hitchcock’s quintessential psychological thriller almost took place in Paris, as that was the setting for D’entre les morts, the French novel by Boileau-Narcejac that provided the movie’s source material. Hitchcock changed the location to the City by the Bay because of its unique terrain and steep geography.
Vertigo was the first film to use the dolly zoom, an effect in which the camera zooms in while moving backward, to provide a deliciously “vertiginous” experience echoing main character John "Scottie" Ferguson’s (James Stewart) fear of heights. In 1996, a restored version of the film premiered at the Castro Theatre, with star Kim Novak and Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia, in attendance.
3. Psych-Out (1968)
The historic Haight-Ashbury neighborhood features heavily in this drug-fueled psychedelic film, which chronicles hippie life during the late 1960s. The movie follows a deaf runaway named Jenny (Susan Strasberg) through underground band venues, Haight Street coffee shops, hippie communes, and of course, iconic spots like the Golden Gate Bridge. It also features actor Jack Nicholson, right before his breakthrough role in 1969 with Easy Rider.
Although it’s one of the few movies to capture the city’s once-thriving counterculture, it actually was intended as a cautionary tale and carries a distinctly anti-drug message thanks to producer Dick Clark.
In his memoir Rock, Roll & Remember, Clark wrote: “I’d seen the kids in the hippie communities living in awful squalor. In the film, you see scenes where ... they’re all stoned-out having a great time. Then there’s the morning-after scene—the garbage lying around, a roach crawling through the food, a half-eaten orange crawling with maggots.”
4. Bullitt (1968)
In this neo-noir thriller, detective Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is tasked with protecting mobster and informant Johnny Ross (Felice Orlandi) as a witness, when suddenly Ross is killed. What follows isn’t just the makings of one of the most epochal action films of the 20th century—Bullitt is also a veritable tour through the streets of San Francisco.
The scene that put this film on the map is a thrilling car chase around the city. Shot over three weeks, it runs for almost 11 minutes, with speeds at times reaching up to 110 mph. To demonstrate how impossible it would be to recreate in real-life, one fan created a Google Map that shows the great distance between the featured locations.
5. Escape From Alcatraz (1979)
This 1979 film is based on the true story of a group of prisoners who attempted to escape from the eponymous maximum security prison on Alcatraz Island in 1962. Directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood, it succeeds Dirty Harry (also set in San Francisco) as the fifth and final collaboration between Siegel and Eastwood.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary closed in 1963, a year after the events depicted in the film. For onsite shooting, producers connected 15 miles of cable from San Francisco to bring electricity to the prison and made $500,000 worth of restorations to the buildings to emulate historical conditions.
6. Pacific Heights (1990)
Dubbed “a horror film for yuppies” by film critic Roger Ebert, Pacific Heights takes bad tenant anxieties to the extreme in a city known for its excellent tenant protections. In it, a couple (played by Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith) purchase a gorgeous Victorian they can’t afford in one of the city’s ritziest neighborhoods, with the intention of renting out the building’s smaller units downstairs.
What follows is a gory struggle involving legal battles, stalking, roach infestations, identity theft, and a steady dose of violence—mostly at the hands of a wonderfully villainous Michael Keaton. Despite the film’s title and setting, the house used for filming is actually located in Potrero Hill, a working-class neighborhood that was considered unfashionable at the time.
7. The Joy Luck Club (1993)
Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club is considered was one of the most seminal works in Asian American literature of the 20th century. It was adapted for the silver screen by Tan and Ronald Bass, and at the film’s center are four Chinese American mothers—immigrants who have imported furniture, mahjong, and Asian traditions into their adoptive city.
The 1989 novel also highlights San Francisco’s robust Chinatown, a neighborhood dating back to the Gold Rush and which has seen several waves of immigration. Despite being one of the most prominent examples of Asian American representation on screen, the film has received backlash from Asian American communities for perpetuating stereotypes that could be considered racist, particularly around Asian men. “Almost every single Chinese male character was portrayed as evil and irresponsible,” one viewer, a Chinese man, wrote in 1993 for the LA Times.
8. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
The real-life Chris Gardner makes a cameo in this biopic, which is based on his 2006 memoir of the same name and traces his journey from homelessness to business success as a stockbroker. Gardner—then a medical equipment salesman with a toddler son—had a chance encounter in the 1980s with a wealthy stockbroker on the street, setting off a path that would allow him to break out of generational poverty.
Will Smith and his real-life son Jaden star as Gardner and his young son, Christopher Jr., in the film. San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system can be seen in several pivotal scenes as a temporary shelter for the Gardners as they faced some of their toughest struggles.
9. Zodiac (2007)
Cartoonist Robert Graysmith’s obsessive quest to track down the Zodiac Killer, the real-life serial murderer whose identity remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in American history, is the focus of this thriller starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal. The real-life Graysmith wrote the books Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked, on which the film is based.
Replicating the Zodiac Killer’s attacks down to the last detail brought production to idyllic Lake Berryessa just north of the city, where, in 1969, the Zodiac reportedly hid behind two oak trees before brutally stabbing two college students. The film crew helicoptered in two oak trees to the now-treeless treeless lake, just to get the shot perfectly right.
10. Milk (2008)
Sean Penn stars as Harvey Milk in this 2008 film, which covers the gay rights activist and politician’s groundbreaking career as the first openly gay man elected to any public office in California, as well as his subsequent assassination. Despite premiering in an election season that saw California voting to ban gay marriage, this film shot to the top of annual best-of lists and took home two Oscars—including one for Penn—for its focus on the power of humanity to bring people together.
The movie was filmed in the legendary Castro District, and emphasized Milk’s efforts to develop the neighborhood into an international center for LGBTQ+ life and visibility in the ’70s. Producers bought out the original location of Milk’s camera shop (then a gift shop) for a few months, delaying production so as not to interfere with the store’s holiday retail season. They also hired a former store employee of Milk’s to serve as an on-set consultant.
11. Blue Jasmine (2013)
High-flying New York socialite Jasmine’s (Cate Blanchett) life takes a sharp turn when she comes to stay with working-class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). This dramedy treats audiences to a broad swath of the city and surrounding neighborhoods, from the quiet Sunset District where Ginger’s ex Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) lives, to ritzy Marin County to the north, where Jasmine searches for a new beau. Blanchett won a Best Actress Oscar for Best Actress for the role (while Hawkins also earned a nod).
12. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
In this heart-wrenching drama, a third-generation San Franciscan (played by writer-actor Jimmie Fails) attempts to reclaim the house his grandfather built in 1946 despite racial disenfranchisement and rising real estate prices. Filmmaker Joe Talbot’s portrayal of the ongoing gentrification of the city’s most marginalized communities is underscored by the fact that several of the movie’s filming locations were bulldozed by the time it was released just a year after filming.
Constant development in the city raised the stakes of filming and made production feel like it was creating a living record. “It felt like we were trying to preserve the old San Francisco, at least on film,” Talbot told Curbed SF in 2019. Although the house Jimmie’s grandfather built is said to be in the Fillmore District, in real life it's located at 959 South Van Ness in the Mission District, and is often referred to by locals as the John Coop house.