Tag Archives: San Francisco

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

invasion lc.jpeg

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

Zodiac (2007) 7.7

Point Blank (1967) 7.4

48 Hours (1982) 6.9


Where Danger Lives (1950) 6.7

Time After Time (1979) 7.2

Towering Inferno (1974) 6.9

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) 7.2

Blue Jasmine (2013) 7.3


Robin Sloan in San Francisco in 2008

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was the “On the Same Page” selection in San Francisco for March and April [2008]. On the last day of that reign, its author Robin Sloan appeared at the San Francisco Public Library. Having enjoyed the book and its prequel, I was predisposed to like the author, and indeed found him charming, speaking without a lectern, casually dressed, and exerting himself to find the questions in what audience members said (some asked real questions, but…).


Sloan majored in economics at Michigan State and worked for Twitter while aspiring to be a writer, but not writing much except tweets. However, the book grew out of a tweet—not one of his but one from a friend who was in England and mistook “24-hour bookdrop” for “24-hour bookstore,” and liked the idea of the latter. As did Sloan, who thought about working in one.

Though its location on Columbus Avenue in North Beach is near City Lights, he said that its inspiration was more Green Apple on Clement in the Richmond district of San Francisco, where he lives (in the Richmond, maybe even on Clement, but not in Green Apple). It stays open until 10 PM, later than most bookstores (as we call them here!).

He wrote stories that he could finish over the course of a long weekend, developing “muscles” for more extended narration.

In 2008 he offered an Amazon (Kindle) Single story for $.99 and was delighted to make about a thousand sales. The next stage (of what he likened to Russian nesting dolls) was a Kickstart posting selling advanced copies of another book for $10 ($12 signed) that drew another thousand. Meanwhile, an agent saw and liked the Amazon Single, and sold an expansion to the literary house Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It has done well critically and commercially, especially in the Bay Area where most of it (and its prequel) are set. (Asked, he said he did not foresee a sequel. I wonder if he might go a generation further back in bookstore owners. What he is writing now is also set in the past and present of San Francisco. And he thinks quiet observers, writing “history in real time” are preferable to flamboyant ones.)

He was asked if the cover design (which glows in the dark) is a code. He said not as far as he knows, and that he made attempts to try to decode it.

He also said that writers are machines for transforming old books into new books.

No one asked about influences or favorite writers or books. I asked if there really are ships buried along what was the waterfront of The City during the Gold Rush. He confirmed that crews jumped ships and rushed off to find gold and that some of the ships were turned into stores, though none, as far as he knows, into a bookstore.


©Stephen O. Murray, 2008


Sloan has a novel titled Sourdough coming out sometime in 2017.

Breaking the mould

Though I was never bewitched by Star Wars, Harry Potter, Dan Brown books, science fiction, or fantasy fiction (I’m not even sure what the distinction between the later two genres are) and don’t tweet, I was enthralled by former Twitter executive Robin Sloan’s novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The bookstore, located amidst strip joints on Broadway in northern San Francisco is very long and narrow with shelves rising more than 30 feet.


After novice designer Clay Jannon loses his job with NewBagel during the Great Recession, he gets a job in the graveyard shift of Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore. Sales are very low, but don’t seem to be the point. In addition to the sales in the front room, there is a backroom from which some elderly “shoppers” borrow mysterious treatises (written in a hieroglyphic-like code).

I guess Ajax Penumbra is an unlikely warrior and little more conventional a wizard, but Clay and his friend from childhood who has gotten rich with an application for rendering body parts (women’s breasts in particular) and a Google Princess Leia, Clay goes to the headquarter of what seems to be a cult on Fifth Avenue in New York, and steals the cult’s secret text, to be decoded by Google’s computers.

I like Clay’s voice, ironic about his fanboy penchants. I like it well enough to have made it through a book that in many ways is outside my interests, though the contrast and tension between Old Knowledge and New Knowledge is certainly interesting and important. And the moral of the story is laudable: “There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care.”sloan2.jpg

Ajax Penumbra, 1969 is a prequel for Robin Sloan’s popular Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, available only as an e-book. Ajax Penumbra is not the protagonist of the novel (that would be Clay Jannon), though an important character. In the prequel he starts as a student then junior librarian at an obscure college who is dispatched to San Francisco to try to find a copy of Techne Tycheon, last seen more than a century ago in Gold Rush San Francisco.

In addition to being on a quest and finding his way to a long, high, and narrow bookstore on Broadway in San Francisco, Penumbra is obsessed by old books and comes to be employed at the bookstore, where he is already subordinate to Corvina. Perhaps more surprisingly, Penumbra’s roommate (Claude) is a pioneer computer builder.

Though occurring decades before the story of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, I think that the order of publication and of composition is the right order for reading. If I had read Ajax Penumbra, 1969 first and not known where his life was going, I suspect I would not have gone on to read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which is a way of saying that Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is better than its prequel, I guess.

Though I was not in San Francisco in 1969, the historical detail seems plausible and well-researched. That BART has not yet opened is very important to the plot.

©2014, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


Ten Best San Francisco (-Set) Novels (in chronological order of first publication)

Many outstanding movies, starting with von Stroheim’s “Greed,” based on McTeague by Frank Norris, and including John Huston’s “Maltese Falcon” (from a novel by Dashiell Hammett), Alfred Hitchcock’ “Vertigo,” and Philip Kaufman’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” have been set in San Francisco. Here I’m spotlighting the best novels set in San Francisco.

Both of the first two books on my list of best San Francisco-set novels were the basis of great movies. McTeague, the 1899 novel by Frank Norris, was the basis for Erich von Stroheim’s butchered (from ten hours to two and a half) 1924 masterpiece, Greed. The title character is an unlicensed Polk Street dentist whose patient/fiancée Trina wins a lottery ($5K) which does not bring the couple happiness.


“The stuff dreams are made of,” The Maltese Falcon in the 1930 novel of that name Dashiell Hammett is a statuette. It was adapted into a good movie with Bette Davis and Ricardo Cortez in 1931, titles “Satan Met a Lady” (actually that is the title of the 1936 version of the pre-Code movie re-release of which was barred; in 1931 it was titled “The Maltese Falcon”). The 1941 John Huston adaptation with Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart (not to mention Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Eishu Cook Jr.) is credited as being the first noir movie. It is an instance in which the movie is better than the book. It, too, could have been titled “greed,” the paramount motivation of most of the characters, though detective Sam Spade has some commitment to loyalty.


A lot of other noir movies were set in San Francisco, but as a location for fiction, there’s not much of note through the WWII and postwar times. crime/pulp novelist Charles Willeford III (best known for the 1955 Pick-Up) set Wild Wives (1956) in San Francisco.

Tales of the City was a serial (first in the Pacific Sun, then in the San Francisco Chronicle) by Armistead Maupin bound into an episode novel Tales of the City in 1978, with seven sequels, most recently, Mary Ann in Autumn (2010). The series centers on transsexual Anna Madrigal and the house o Barbary Lane where she mothers tenants, including a girl whose biological father she was, the perky gay Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver, the more careerist news reporter Mary Ann, and the womanizing Brian. Lord knows, there are plenty of local and topical references in the series.


Vikram Seth. Who is best known as the author of the massive A Suitable Boy (1993) had earlier written a novel in verse about San Francisco yuppies, Golden Gate (1986). Gore Vidal called it “The Great California Novel” and it is the basis for an opera that has been workshopped. (A musical “Tales of the City” recently ran at ACT in San Francisco, and three operas based on McTeague have been written.)


The rest of the books on my list reach backward in time. My favorite (and shockingly out of print) is Matthew Stadler’s Landscape: Memory (1990), which is primarily set in 1914-16 (i.e., before US entry into the European war). The narrator recalling the love of his life might be considered a gay precursor of Max Tivoli (see below). He is also named Max: Max Kosegarten. The love, before going to college and an accident separated them was Duncan Taqdir, son of a Persian sculptor and an English archeologist (an “exotic”). Max’s mother was also having an affair with Duncan’s father. Stadler evokes not only requited first love but also the post-Earthquake San Francisco, back when the Sunset District was unpopulated sand dunes. Stadler also wrote a moving story of an expat from San Francisco to Paris family, the San Francisco born only child of Michael and Sarah Stein (who discovered Picasso before Michael’s sister Gertrude…) Allan Stein (1999) that is in print and deserves to be better known (it takes place in Seattle and Paris, btw).


China Boy (1991) by Gus Lee is an autobiographical novel that begins with Kai Ting is the youngest child of parents who fled Mao, being beaten up by a Panhandle vicinity bully Big Willie Mack. Kai Ting builds up his puny body (A Chinese American Mark Salzman (Iron and Silk)). The Tiger’s Tail (1996) is not exactly a sequel. Jackson Kan, its protagonist, like Lee went to West Point. The novel s set south of the Korean DMZ in the bitterly cold winter of 1973, with flashbacks to killing a young girl in Vietnam. Bill Lee’s 1999 memoir Chinese Playground is not a novel, but deserves to be better known an account of growing up on the mean streets of San Francisco Chinatown.


Bone by Fae Myenne Ng (1993) chronicles three Chinatown daughters of a sweatshop seamstress and a merchant seaman (laundryman) from the 1960s through the 90s. The suicide of the middle one is the pivot of the novel, and the other two leave The City, the oldest one for the ‘burbs, the youngest for NY. It is less melodramatic than Tan’s novels, but I would not say it is unmelodramatic!


Amy Tan’s novels The Joy Luck Club (1989) has a large cast of characters, San Francisco daughters of China-born mothers. The numbers are reduced to a mother-daughter pair (Lu Ling and Ruth) in her best novel, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, published in 2001.Well, the “auntie” who raised Lu Ling is also a major character (who knows where the ancient bones of “Peking Man” are), and the China parts are more interesting than the San Francisco ones. It, too, has served as the basis for an opera (by Stewart Wallace with a libretto by Tan, premiered by the San Francisco Opera in 2008).


Its reverse-aging gimmick kept me from reading Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli when it appeared in 2004, despite having much admired Greer’s novel The Path of Minor Planets (set on a small island in the South Pacific to which American astronomers have repaired in 1965 to watch Comet Swift). When I picked it up, I was entranced and moved, as well as intrigued by the historical detail of Max between 1871 and 1941.


I did not wait long after the publication of Greer’s next novel, The Story of a Marriage (2008) set in the Sunset District ca 1953 with frisson or racial differences and homosexuality during the McCarthy era (yes even at the western edge of the continent).


For old-time San Francisco color and a San Francisco author who wrote The Devil’s Dictionary, the series of Ambrose Bierce mysteries by Oakley Hall (born in San Diego, a graduate of Berkeley) should also be mentioned. The first and best is Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades (1998). (BTW, Amy Tan was a student of Hall’s, as was Michael Chabon [Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boy, Moonglows.)

I also want to mention four collections of stories set in San Francisco

The People of the Abyss (aka “south of the Slot”—of the Market Street streetcar line) (1903) by Oakland proletarian writer, later turned Sonoma County gentleman farmer, Jack London

The Man With the Heart in the Highlands (1939[1986]) by Fresno-native William Saroyan

City Limits (2000) by James Toland (stories set in the Mission District)

Burden of Ashes (2002) by Singapore native Justin Chin, whose frustrations at life as a gay Asian American are also central to the performance pieces colleted in Attack of the Man-Eating Lotus Blossoms (2005)

And a novel set in Colma, where San Franciscans are buried Alive in the Necropolis by Doug Dorst (2008). As “Colma: The Musical” which was not based on the novel notes, the population of Colma is 1200 who are alive and more than two million who are dead).

I am puzzled by when Going to See the Elephant by Virginia native Rodes Fishburne takes place, though it certainly moves around town on MUNI.

Though playing a significant part in romanticizing San Francisco as a city of refuge for nonconformists (not just “beats”) I also have to mention On the Road by Jack Kerouac (published in 1957, written some years earlier) , though it is primarily set on the road, not in the cities of the east or west coast.

Some other contenders for consideration (to read), novels that are set in San Francisco”

Caroline’s Daughter (1991) by Alice Adams, a native of Virginia who lived for many years in San Francisco

Maleficus (1999), a newsroom thriller by a former San Francisco Chronicle editor and writer James Toland

the post-punk lesbian Valencia (2000) by Michelle Tea (the Valencia Street corridor used to have lesbian bars and coffee shops; Tea, who was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, for many years she hosted monthly queer readings at the San Francisco Public Library)

SoMa (2007) and The Sower (2009) by Kemble Scott

Little Brother (2008) by Torontonian Cory Doctorow

The High Ground: A Novel of Terror in San Francisco (2011) by Mark Cotter

Blood Sucking Fiends (1995), A Dirty Job (2006), You Suck (2007), Bite Me (2010) by Toledo-native Christopher Moore, who has returned to San Francisco after some years on Maui,

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012) by Robin Sloan and its ebook-only prequel, Ajax Penumbra, 1969 (2013) are a little too fantasy fiction for me, but grounded in history, including ships sunk in San Francisco harbor after crews rushed up to Gold Country

(Latinos and blacks are underrepresented across this list, those of Asian descent other than Chinese unrepresented. ACT premiered an interesting play by Philip Kan Gotanda’s “After the War” in 2007, but novels?)




Martin Eden by Jack London

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland by Philip K. Dick

1967 Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga by Hunter S. Thompson

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Letham

The Fifth Book of Peace by Maxine Hong Kingston