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Best San Francisco Movies

My list of best San Francisco novels begat a list of favorite San Francisco movies. I’m including IMDB(1-10) ratings after the year to provide a consensus view of quality. I’m weighting San Francisco visibility more.

Vertigo (1958) 8.4

5739.jpgAlfred Hitchcock’s movie about obsession (James Stewart’s character’s) recently topped the decennial Sight & Sound list of greatest movies, so had better be atop this list! Along with Stewart’s relentlessness and Kim Novak’s vulnerability, this has a lot of San Francisco sites, including the top of Telegraph Hill, Madge’s Russian Hill apartment, the Legion of Honor, the Mission Dolores cemetery (where the alcalde after whom my street is named is buried), the long-gone Ernie’s and the mission at San Juan Bautista with a tower (not an insignificant plot element!) added.And the Bernard Hermann romantic score!

Bullitt (1968) 7.5


The chase makes no geographic sense, but I like that it includes my neighborhood (Potrero Hill). Steve McQueen is dour (supposed to be cool). I don’t remember the plot except that the smarmy Robert Vaughan is not to be trusted.

Dark Passage (1947) 7.6


I most love the ending, which is set far south of San Francisco (or Hollywood, for that matter), and the nightmare trek up and down outside stairways and Lauren Bacall’s (character’s) apartment.

The Lady from Shanghai (1948) 7.7


Playland had burned down before I moved to San Francisco, but the hall of mirrors shootout is forever. As is the glamour of Rita Hayworth, as in “Gilda.” Somehow I believe her character, but not Orson Welles’s.

The Conversation (1974) 7.9


An aural stakeout in Union Square with a then-unknown Harrison Ford, plus Gene Hackman becoming unhinged for Francis Ford Coppola (a short walk from Zoetrope).

Thieves’ Highway (1949) 7.7


Another vanished location: the waterfront produce market in Jules Dassin’s noir with Lee J. Cobb practicing for “On the Waterfront” and Richard Conte trying to be a leading man.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) 7.4

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I used to have a desk with a view across Grove Street of City Hall (home of what we called “the dome mentality”), where the pods take over in Philip Kaufman’s stylish remake that featured Leonard Nimoy (starred Donald Sutherland).

D.O.A. (1950) 7.4


Edmond O’Brien wanders the streets of The City (as we like to capitalize it), knowing that he has taken a lethal dose of poison in Rudolf Maté’s noir/thriller. O’Brien plays an accountant from Banning (inland southern California) on vacation. The movie begins with a tracking shot in police HQ (before the Hall of Justice was built). Much of the movie was shot in LA…

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) 7.3


This installment was inspired by Humphrey, the hump-backed whale that wandered into the Bay migrating from Baja to Alaska, and is fun for all, but especially for San Franciscans.

“What’s Up, Doc?” (1972) 7.8


I don’t remember much about Barbara Streisand’s second movie, a screwball comedy directed by Peter Bogdanovich with Babs channeling the actress who tied with her Oscar for her first movie and Ryan O’Neal trying to channel Cary Grant. In addition to the “Bring Up Baby” resonances, there was Madeline Kahn’s debut. There is a parody of the “Bullit” chase and the TWA facilities of SFO’s South Terminal (now Terminal 1 with no TWA).

 and ten more:

Pal Joey (1957) 6.8 (Rita Hayorth’s character’s yacht)

Interview with the Vampire (1994) 7.6 (the interview itself)

Petulia (1968) 7.3

Sudden Fear (1952) 7.5

Experiment in Terror (1962) 7.3 the then-new, now demolished Candlestick Park

House on Telegraph Hill (1951) 7

Where Danger Lives (1950) 6.7

Point Blank (1967) 7.4

48 Hours (1982) 6.9


Time After Time (1979) 7.2

Towering Inferno (1974) 6.9

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) 7.2

Blue Jasmine (2013) 7.3

1958 somewhat revisionist western, “The Big Country”

I like both Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons a lot, so was inclined to like William Wyler’s “The Big Country” (which I saw on tv many decades ago). In some ways it is a revisionist western, somewhat like “High Noon,” not as radical as “The Searchers,” or even “The Gunfighter” (with a mustachioed Peck), the first of the revisionist westerns of the 1950s.


Peck played James McKay, a Yankee sea captain, who has come west to wed Patricia Terill (Caroll Baker), the devoted (to an unhealthy degree) daughter of doting cattle baron, Major Henry Terrill (the gravel-voiced Charles Bickford). McKay refuses to prove his masculinity in public, though the audience is privy to demonstrations his fiancée is not, including fighting the major’s foreman, Steve Leech, played by a surly Charlton Heston, in a memorable knock-down, drag-out fistfight shot from far above. There is also a God’s eye (well, at least canyon rim top) view of the final one-on-one gunfight between the stubborn patriarchs (Burl Ives, winning his Oscar). There are more conventional, closer-up shots of the duel between Peck and the eldest, weasliest son of Rufus Hannassey, “Buck” (Chuck Connors).

None of the four Hannasey boys is a testimonial to good child-raising. As the eldest, “Buck” had to have had more time with a mother. His father deplores him, but has to have a major share of the blame for Buck’s character. Rufus otherwise seems a perspicacious observer and interpreter of what is unsaid. And he is either the only one who remembers despicable deeds by the major, or the only one with the courage to allude to them. (I don’t know what the major did that so riled Hannassey, and Patricia certainly won’t listen to anything disparaging of her father.)

In addition to the Hannassey’s Blanco Canyon (shot in Kern County, California’s Red Rock State Park) and the major’s vast holdings (shot in the Sierra foothills east of Stockton), there is a river with year-round water, the Big Muddy, on land owned by Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), who allows access to the water to both the Terrill and Hannassy cattle. She lives in town and teaches school, the ranch she inherited (form her grandfather; I have no idea what happened to her parents) is fallow (well, ungrazed). She and Pat and the major are friends, but she abides by her grandfather’s promise to allow the Hannasseys access to the Big Muddy.

Having resisted offers to sell from both sides, Julie precipitously accepts an offer from McKay to buy the property. Steve and his henchmen drive Hannassey cattle away, though neither Julie nor McKay would support this. (I don’t think Steve knows the deed had changed hands, and am not sure whether he is acting on his own or following orders from the major.)

Buck seizes Julie. The major’s mini-army is set to go in the narrow canyon to rescue her. McKay knows this is just a pretext and goes in himself to get her out. Violence follows, if less than the threatened “river of blood.”


McKay is as stubborn as the two patriarchs, though trying to make peace between two clans that do not want that and not at all given to public posturing, in contrast to the senior antagonists and their junior ones (Heston and Connors). Peck was very, very good in the role (fresh from the monomania of Captain Ahab), as were the old enemy patriarchs Ives and Bickford played.

I can’t see McKay being so smitten by the superficial Patricia as to give up his way of life and go to wed her in her own (that is, her father’s) turf. It is obvious that Julie is smarter and more compatible. Do they love each other? I’m not sure, and though they are together at the end, there is no indication they will live together happily ever after, or at all. And the heirs of both Terrill and Hannassey ranches are less prudential than the patriarchs, and it is difficult to foresee McKay keeping the peace that he has tenuously established by pushing the old men to fight each other rather than to sacrifice surrogates to their enmity.

Veteran cinematographer Franz Planer (who was Oscar-nominated for Wyler-directed “Roman Holiday” and “The Children’s Hour”) did good work. Presumable the shooting from up and away was Wyler’s decision. Jerome Moross’s rousing western score (kicking in in the opening credits; thankfully this is one 1950s western without a ballad!) foreshadowed scores by Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone, and was Oscar-nominated. (Dimitri Tiomkin won for “The Old Man and the Sea.”)

The adaptation to a big-screen, all-star, 165-minute-long movie from a story by Donald Hamilton (creator of Matt Helm) was credited to Wyler and to Jessamyn West, the author of Friendly Persuasion, which Wyler had directed an adaptation of (not crediting her work beyond the novel) in 1956. It centers on a pacifist who was played by Gary Cooper (who took up arms in Howard Hawks’s “Sgt. York”).

I’m still not sure that Burl Ives deserved the Oscar for his part here, but for me the alternative choice would have been his “Big Daddy” in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” He definitely peaked in 1958! His Golden Globe for 1958 was also for his role in “The Big Country,” btw. And Wyler went on (even before shooting was complete) to Rome to direct Heston in the title role of “Ben Hur,” for which both won Oscars.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray





Clint Eastwood’s film in Japanese: “Letters from Iwo Jima”

One of the most surprising WWII movies projects is the 2006 one almost entirely in Japanese that Clint Eastwood directed and co-produced,, “Letters from Iwo Jima” (Iōjima Kara no Tegami), the companion piece to his “Flags of Our Fathers” (which is more about the post-combat experiences of the US Marines in the iconic photo raising the US flag at Iwo Jima, which we now know was a staged reraising…). Surprisingly, the movie in Japanese did better at the US box office than the one in English had, as well as receiving more critical acclaim. (And it did very well in Japan, being #1 at the box office there for five weeks.)


The movie opens in 2005, excavating buried letters then flashes back to 1944, when Pvt. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker in civilian life with a wife and young daughter rashly advocates surrendering to the numerically (and in firepower) superior US marines. Captain Tanida (Takumi Bando) beats him for this offense, though Tanida is stopped by the newly arrived commander, Gen. Kuribayashi Tadamichi (Ken Watanabe), who does not want to waste men like that.


Kuribayashi learns that the Japanese fleet he has counted on for support (or evacuation!) has been destroyed. Kuribayashi knows the beach will be taken, and has his troops dig in (tunneling supplementing the caves already of Mount Suribachi on the island).


The movie shows the Japanese infantrymen as regular guys who wish that they were home, yet are often courageous, while showing a very authoritarian (not to mention suicide-drenched) officer culture, even for a military culture. Though Gen. Kuribayashi tells his men not to kill themselves but to kill the enemy, he is not immune to the cult of the noble death and of suicide rather than surrender. And the whole exercise of defending the island (with undertrained as well as underarmed troops) is suicidal (the Japanese running out of ammunition and food, having to subsist on a diet of worms). (It is grim, but not in comparison to the Japanese movies occupying the top slots on my list!)

The movie shows that Japanese propaganda demonized Americans, just as American propaganda demonized Japanese.

BTW the movie was mostly shot in inland California (around Barstow) with only one day shooting on Iwo Jima. Though shot in color, the color is so washed out that it often seems to be in black and white.

Eastwood was nominated for the best director Oscar, he and Steven Spielberg for best picture. The sound editing won the Oscar and Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis were nominated for bext original screenplay (somewhat strangely in that it is heavily based on Gen. Tadamachi’s posthumous “Gyokusai sōshikikan.”

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

An early post-colonial novel about internal exile

The back cover of the republication of Beer in the Snooker Club by Wauigh Ghali (1928?-69) claims that “if Holden Caulfield had grown up in 1950s Cairo rather than in New York City, he would have found himself a kindred spirit in Ram Bey. I think any resemblances between Beer in the Snooker Club and Catcher in the Rye are very superficial. There is some resemblance between Salinger’s Mr. Spencer and the Londoner to whom Ram has a letter of introduction, Dr. Dungate, but Ram is older than Holden, far more sexually experienced and assured, and far more politically aware. Both despite the phoniness of others and of their cultures, but Ram is far more aware of his own phoniness than Holden is. (And both novels meander a bit, though Ghali’s has characters who are developed more than Salinger’s, who are IMHO props for his solipsistic narrator.)


Moreover, Ram’s ethnicity is not fudged as Salinger’s Holden Caulfiield’s is: Ram is a Copt, for him an ethnicity with no religious content, but a threatened minority status in Nasser’s pan-Arab (Muslim though not Islamist) autocracy. The militaristic Muslim state targeted the cosmopolitan (partly Jewish, but not only Jewish) elite, many of whose members (including the hanger-on Ram, whose dead father lost all his wealth before the revolution of 1952) did not speak Arabic. He was educated in Anglophone schools with Francophone relatives condescending to the Muslim majority, the fellaheen (now more commonly Romanized as fellahin). The books he read were English, and before going there, Ram was a fervent anglophile… and unable to feel at home in either the old or the new Egypt with colonial or post-colonial oppressions.

A sponger from the old elite class, Ram is in love with a communist Jewish woman from a very rich family (that has lived in Egypt for five generations, though she is the first member of it to speak Arabic), Edna Salva. Edna pays for the expenses of both Ram and his pure-hearted schoolmate Font going to England. Font has an affair with one of Dr. Dungate’s daughters; Ram sleeps with another visiting Egyptian, Didi (whom I think is also Coptic, as Font also is), even while being supported by Edna. (and only years later does Ram tell Edna that he had joined the communist party in the UK, explaining: “this knowledge of history and politics and literature had to be channelled towards something or other if I weren’t to go mad.”

Back in Egypt after the Suez Crisis of 1956, Ram gathers evidence of torture of communists and other opponents of the Nasser regime, cadges drinks, etc. from his affluent schoolmates (NOT Font who takes a job attending to the Cairo Snooker Club owned by another affluent classmate, Jameel) and proposes to both Edna and Didi in quick succession.


The narrator is outraged by the difficulty of getting an exit visa from Egypt and, then, by his treatment by British immigration officials, though with help from Dr. Dungate he manages to get a student visa to extend the ten-day tourist visa on which he arrived in London.

There is a lot of alcohol in the book, not just in the title (at the club, Ram adds Vodka and whisky to the local (Stella) beer approximate the British Bass Pale Ale, which is unavailable in Egypt). I didn’t notice any mention of religious opposition to or interdiction of alcoholic beverages in the semi-autobiographical novel. (Ghali, like Ram an impoverished member of a non-Muslim, non-Arabic-using rentier family, attended Victoria College in his native Alexandria and in Cairo in the late 1940s, spent some time without obtaining a degree at the Sorbonne in the early 1950s, and lived partly in West Germany, partly in England after leaving Egypt a second time and for good in 1958.)


(Muizz Street, photographed by Joonas Plann)

As a tale of disillusionment and alienation, Beer in the Snooker Club is bitterly funny (unlike Holden, Ram has a sense of humor, and considers joking what Egyptians do best), though I find it difficult to accept that it provides “uncanny parallels to today’s Egypt” (as Negar Azmi claimed in the New York Times, 9/11/11 at The lack of jobs and the concomitant exodus of many of the educated after the failure of “the Arab Spring” is a parallel, if not a surprising, let alone an uncanny one, to the stunted social revolution of 1952. (Azmi also invokes Holden Caulfield and treat Ram as “articulat[ing] the identity crisis of a generation,” as Holden did. (Oddly, neither the back cover of the Vintage reissue nor Azmi’s essay mention Cairene Noble laureate, sometimes socialist (Wafd) and always anti-Islamist Naguib Mahfouz, although Azmi mentions Alaa al-Aswany’s mega-best-seller in Arabic, The Yacoubian Building, and Lexy Bloom (on the back cover) mentions Ben Lerner’s modern classic of young male disillusionment, Leaving the Atocha Station. In its Africa-to-Britian trajectory, apter comparison would have been to Sudanese (upriver) somewhat-later novel of return from England, Season of Migration to the North, by Ghali’s contemporary Tayeb Saleh (1928-2009) or to the novels of Francophone Cairo-born novelist of Greek Orthodox ancestry predecessor, Albert Cossery (1913-2008), such as The Jokers and Proud Beggars; Cossery maintained that laziness was not a vice, but a necessary basis for contemplation, a sentiment Ram might have shared had he read French instead of English).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray


More Albert Cossery fiction

Nothing much happens in The House of Certain Death, first published in French in 1950as La maison de la mort certaine) by Egyptian-born French writer Albert Cossery (1913-2008). Surprisingly (or willfully!) it ends with a rabble-will-rise invocation by the tenement tenants of venal landlord Si Khalil. It is especially surprising in that before that they could not agree about anything, constantly quarreling and often cursing each other while, with good cause, fearing the building will collapse. Before the solidarity imagined for the end, the best those living there hoped was: “The house will fall on our heads, but there are a lot of us. We shan’t all be killed. Some will survive and know how to avenge the others” (Abdel Al’s articulation of their fatalism)


Cossery mentioned reading Gorky in prison, but Gorky (along with French “naturalism”) also seems to have influenced Cossery. Or at least I don’t see the form as much influenced by indigenous Arab models… This might be because of my ignorance, but I don’t think it is.

Cossery aimed to show “limitless ugliness of life” in an Egyptian city slum and certainly succeeded in that: there’s lots of degradation and decay on view (from back in the reign of King Farouk).


My favorite Cossery fiction available in English is his third novel, The Lazy Ones, (first published in French in 1948 as Les fainéants dans la vallée fertile) in which Serag mystifies everyone by seeking to break loose from his eternally sleeping family and fantasizing about work. Outside his family everyone he encounters wonders why he would want to work if he didn’t have to. Inside the family, repose is valued more highly than sex. The servant Hoda, whom Serag’s brothers lust after, wants Serag, who is not interested, regarding sex as a drain of his limited energy that should be devoted to leaving the house of sleepers and finding work

There is also Mimi, a painter who thinks artists must be pederasts and who longs for his former classmate of Serag’s older brother Rafik (who in turn misses the prostitute he almost married and is contemptous of Mimi, even suggesting that he isn’t a real invert).

And the father (Hafez) is trying to arrange a marriage despite his growing hernia (as large as a watermelon). The matchmaker telles people that he has diabetes. In her view only righ people could eat enough sweets to become diabetic, to that this is a selling point.


©2017, Stephen Murray

Also see my review of Proud Beggars. Cossery’s forebearers were Greek Orthodox, not Muslim; all eight of his novels were about Arabs.

The most effective weapon of the weak may be parody, but like satire, some will take it literally

Born in Cairo of Lebanese and Syrian Greek Orthodox parents Albert Cossery (1913–2008) spent ten years in the Egyptian merchant marines before starting to write caustic satirical novels in French. He was discovered by Henry Miller and Albert Camus (not a common pairing!). His 1993 novel La violence et la dérision (Violence and derision) translated into English by Anna Moschovakis and published as The Jokers in the estimable New York Review Books series.


Though the setting is not named, it is a port city, presumably in Africa, like Alexandria. Autocrats lacking in any sense of irony or any other sense of humor rule the country. The regime crushes dissent.

As a student, Karim had been an opponent of the autocracy, but has settled down to making kits and avoids any political remarks. If pressed, as when he is hauled into the police who want to eject him from his rooftop apartment the overlooks a thoroughfare, Karim praises the regime and all its functionaries to a degree that makes even the pompous officials uncomfortable.

With his friend Heykal, Karim begins a campaign of parodying the local governor with posters of such extravagant praise that they make him a laughing stock. From that success, they go on to launch a campaign to raise a public statue of the buffoon. Mockery, ridicule, satire are among the weapons of the weak, specialties of Czechs in particular, but available to Arabs, too.

Alas, one of Karim’s former comrades in opposition to the regime, the deadly serious Taher is outraged that serious revolutionaries such as himself are being blamed for the subversive campaign of excessive adulation of the nonentity governor, so even as the central government is blaming the governor for puffing himself up, Taher is bent on conventional (violent) means to combat the government.

Ultimately, the joke is on the jokers and it is unlikely that anything will improve for the governed.

Along with the campaign of out-bombasting the bombastic autocrats, there is a poignant story of the mother of a teacher who has lost her mind, and some tenderness from a friend of her son. And kite-flying. And even hints of redemptive love for a 4-F character.


The novel is a brisk 145 pages.

John Buchan’s introduction provides an overview of Cossery’s life and works.


©2010,2017, Stephen O. Murray


The Indonesian Gone with the Wind, not without war, though war is less central than in GWTW

Far and away the most famous Indonesian novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006), was imprisoned by the Dutch in the waning days of their colonial rule and again for more than ten years (without trial) by the Suharto regime. Denied writing material in prison, Pramoedya was one of the writers most advocated for by PEN. He was released from prison in 1979, but remained under house arrest in Jakarta until 1992, his books all banned in Indonesia, and his Australian Embassy translator into English of it, Maxwell Lane, ejected from the country.

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The tetralogy dubbed “the Buru quartet” after the name of the prison in which he was held for more than a decade was first told to other prisoners at Buru in 1973-75. It is really difficult for me to find anything that could be considered subversive in This Earth of Mankind (Bumi Manusia in Bahasa Indonesian, the national language, which is the one in which Toer consistently wrote), the first volume. It is set in the late-19th century and certainly shows racism (not just of the Dutch colonists, but perhaps even more of the Creoles, referred to as “Indos” condescending to “natives” with no European blood and only one name (like Sukarno and Suharto, but not the triple named author!)). There is nothing at all valorizing the workers. The characters are all in the most elite high school, Javanese sultan’s courts, or rich.

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The narrator, Minke, is of royal blood and is the only native in the colony’s top high school (at least he thinks so until another boy reveals that he is also native rather than Indo half way through the novel). Minke is prickly and hot-headed, and soon enamored with Annelies , the daughter of a leading entrepreneur, the ruthless Nyai Ontosoroh, who runs the businesses of the Dutch man, Herman Mellema, who bought her (as a concubine) from her parents. The property is in her name and as Mellema has sunk into alcoholism and living in a nearby bordello, he has ceded running the businesses to her.

Nyai is filled with rage at her parents and her status, and has found the opposite way to be a good parent, completely sheltering Annelies from realities. Nyai is delighted to have Minke to aid in protecting Annelies from realities and to help her run the Mellema business empire.

Got the romance? The melodrama goes beyond the sort of Indonesian Barbara Stanwyck running things when the Dutch son of Herman Mellema turns up and maneuvers to take control not only of the Mellema businesses but of his half-sister. The soap opera dovetails with a portrayal of Dutch racialist policy that is quite devastating, not least to Annelies, who identifies with her mother as native but outranks her mother and her lover whom she weds, because she is half-European.

Why would this critique of the colonial regime bother the Suharto regime? (And, reputedly, Suharto himself had the book banned.) The only aspect that I can think of is that Minke is a writer and writes critically of a regime, even though the regime is the Dutch colonial one. The possibility of dissidence was threatening, I guess

Though I cringed at some of the soap opera elements, I found the book absorbing and was able to tune out the considerable noise of the Jakarta airport to read the first hundred pages. (Though I’ve known of the author and tetraology for a long time, I was reluctant to launch into four longish books, but had rupiahs to spend in the airport and chose this book to spend them on, paying about a 50% airport store premium, but still having enough to pay for lunch. I don’t regret buying the book, though wish I had bought it before the trip.)

©2017, Stephen O. Murray