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One of the country’s most picturesque cities and conveniently located just a few hours’ drive from Hollywood, San Francisco became the most frequently and extensively filmed American city beyond the production hubs of Los Angeles and New York in the three decades after World War II. During those years, the cinematic image of the city morphed from the dreamy beauty of Vertigo to the nightmarish wasteland of Dirty Harry, although San Francisco itself experienced no such decline. This intriguing disconnect gives impetus to Hollywood in San Francisco, the most comprehensive study to date of Hollywood’s move from studio to location production in the postwar era.
In this thirty-year history of feature filmmaking in San Francisco, Joshua Gleich tracks a sea change in Hollywood production practices, as location shooting overtook studio-based filming as the dominant production method by the early 1970s. He shows how this transformation intersected with a precipitous decline in public perceptions of the American city, to which filmmakers responded by developing a stark, realist aesthetic that suited America’s growing urban pessimism and superseded a fidelity to local realities. Analyzing major films set in San Francisco, ranging from Dark Passage and Vertigo to The Conversation, The Towering Inferno, and Bullitt, as well as the TV show The Streets of San Francisco, Gleich demonstrates that the city is a physical environment used to stage urban fantasies that reveal far more about Hollywood filmmaking and American culture than they do about San Francisco.
Joshua Gleich is an assistant professor in the School of Theatre, Film, and Television at the University of Arizona. His work has appeared in Cinema Journal, New Review of Film and Television Studies, and The Velvet Light Trap.