Sunday, January 10, 2010

Looking Forward, Looking Back: San Francisco Noir, "The Lineup"

Dory at Sutro Ruins 1979
(Click on images for larger view)

I’m a fan of film noir, and over the holidays I enjoyed seeing the 1958 classic The Lineup for the first time. This film especially appealed to me because San Francisco was the setting, and director Don Siegel made the best possible use of interesting spots around the city: the waterfront docks, the Sutro Baths, the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge, and the then unfinished Embarcadero Freeway which was still being constructed. That freeway is no longer there. Damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, it was torn down in 1991.

I’m caught up in all things San Francisco now as I work on revising a section of my novel-in-progress. One chapter is set at the Sutro Bath ruins near Ocean Beach and Point Lobos, close to where the Pacific flows into San Francisco Bay, so it was of great interest to see scenes filmed at the Sutro Bath complex while it was still standing. It had burned down and all that still remain are the foundation walls, which look almost like ancient ruins. I’d seen old black-and-white photographs of the baths, but until seeing The Lineup I’d never seen any movie footage of it.

Sutro Baths and Cliff House Postcard

Sutro Bath Ruins 1979

I was surprised to see it in the film because I’d thought burned prior to the 1950s. Research shows me that it actually burned down in June of 1966 – so it had been standing a mere dozen years before I saw and walked the ruins for the first time in 1978. There are even pictures of the fire on the National Park Service Website here.

We ended up watching
The Lineup DVD a second time the following evening, this time with the commentary by writers James Ellroy and Eddie Muller turned on. One of the things they discussed was the accuracy of the settings and that the scenes were true to San Francisco’s geography. For instance, in the chase scene from Sutro’s to the Embarcadero Freeway, they really pass the things they would’ve driven by and you can see them in the background, such as the Legion of Honor Museum, The Palace of Fine Arts and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Seeing the film has caused me to change some of the dialogue in scenes I’d written where two of the main characters are walking together at the Sutro ruins. It also made me think about the Embarcadero Freeway and how I might use it as material. That freeway had been an eyesore, and its construction had been controversial because it bisected the waterfront area. It had been meant to connect the Bay Bridge with the Golden Gate Bridge, but was only ever completed as far as the Broadway exit ramp to North Beach. Now that it’s been torn down, a park stands where an off ramp was, and a wide tree-lined boulevard opens up and unites the waterfront where there is now a promenade for pedestrians.

I’ve been back to San Francisco twice since we moved east in 1982, once in January 1990 just a few months after the Loma Prieta quake and again in June 2004. The last time we were there, I was struck by how much had changed at the Sutro ruins. A part of the trail we used to walk along the cliffs at Lands End is now inaccessible due to erosion and is closed off to hikers. As late as 1982 when we were still living in San Francisco that part of the trail was open and we used to walk it, including the narrow part along the very edge of the cliff. Occasionally we’d read in the newspaper of a hiker who’d fallen there to the deadly rocks far below. This interesting website with photo galleries is devoted to capturing and recording the subtle changes as they occur at the ruins.

Was it serendipity that I happened to watch The Lineup as I turned my focus toward finishing my novel? Maybe. (Funny how things seem to come together when you get into “the zone” of generating fresh material.) Is it inspiration? Definitely.

From the Blogosphere:

Alexander Chee's post at his blog “Koreanish” on photographs of the Tuileries Palace found at a yard sale and their usefulness to him in writing the book he’s now working on.

Photo Credits:

Top Photo: “Dory at Sutro Ruins 1979” copyright © Kevin Scanlon, used by permission

Middle Illustration: “Sutro Baths and Cliff House Postcard” courtesy of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, National Park Service via San Francisco Parklands Image Gallery

Bottom Photo: “Sutro Bath Ruins 1979” copyright © Dory Adams

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Frances said...

Thanks for mentioning this film and the history of the area. Planning to check out both the movie and the area next time I'm out there.

evf said...


I come by way of She Writes. What a wonderful idea for a blog. I love the mix of images and words, the history and depth of this post and the study on The Lineup which I have added to my Netflix queue.

I will be returning.

Dory Adams said...

Frances, glad you found your way to my post. I hope you like the film and that you'll have a chance to visit the Sutro Bath ruins next time you're in San Francisco.

evf, welcome! Always great to have people find my blog through "She Writes."

cynthia newberry martin said...

Yes, I remember that feeling of really going strong on each of my novels. Everything I saw, heard, or felt seemed to fit in somehow and all those sights, sounds, and feelings seemed like such a gift.

I've enjoyed catching up on your posts, Dory!