Travel: Celluloid city

Screen gem: San Francisco, hero of Hitchcock's re-released `Vertigo'. Muthena Paul Alkazraji checks out the town-turned-movie star
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The Independent Travel
In a burst of exuberant bed-bouncing at San Francisco's Phoenix Hotel, the lead singer of US hard-core band the Foo Fighters sprang over the bamboo footboard and through the plate-glass window. Perhaps due to the window's sheer effrontery in spoiling the record leap, the band then trashed the rest of the room. The staff at the Phoenix, however, are used to dealing with the excesses of music business characters. This oasis in the otherwise sleazy Tenderloin district is a regular check- in for touring rock bands and their road crews. If your travel budget/record label will cover the damage, you are more than welcome to turn up here and swing your Stratocaster around in a Pete Townshend-like manner.

The hotel's guest list reads like a duplicate of invitees to a Q Music Awards ceremony. As well as luminaries from US rock's hall of fame, it has also hosted many a visiting Brit. Tears for Fears, Radiohead and Blur have all stayed here, and a faded UB40 tour-sticker still clings stubbornly to the chambermaid's cleaning trolley. To their credit, hotel employees have a reputation for showing neither star-struck obsequiousness to rock deities - not so easy when David Bowie is in your foyer - nor disdain for lesser travelling mortals.

A salmon-pink colour scheme, piped bird and cricket song, and tropical plants give the Phoenix a kitschy-fun character. The hotel's kidney-shaped swimming pool, with its swirling 1969 artwork on the bottom, circumvented a local pool bylaw (no swirling designs on pool-bottoms) by obtaining California landmark status. Inside, the hotel's Voodoo Bar and Lounge - named, so I was told, to ward off the legal curse of the Rolling Stones management - the decor includes zebra-skin wallpaper, bone-draped lighting and bongo-drum bar stools. Miss Pearl's Jam House, the hotel's restaurant, offers Caribbean cuisine. I plumped for "plantain encrusted thresher shark", but my enjoyment was tempered by concern about having endangered the species.

A further facility for the use of guests at the Phoenix, a simple but inspired touch in this favourite city of movie-makers, is its choice of videos shot on location in San Francisco. Reclining on the bamboo bed in my room, I called up my selections from reception on the in-house cable channel, and set off later to soak up some movie-location ambience. I particularly wanted to walk through scenes in Hitchcock's dark classic, Vertigo, re-released in Britain this week.

From the top of Russian Hill, the streets of San Francisco plummet in step-like descent beneath intersecting electrified trolleybus-cables, and down towards the bay and Alcatraz Island. Gradients of up to 31.5 per cent wear away the brake-linings of city taxis on average every 2,000 miles. This is quintessential car-chase territory. It was through these streets that Steve McQueen screeched in a Ford Mustang GT, pursuing the hitmen who had assassinated a trial witness under his protection, in the 1968 thriller, Bullitt. Hand-held cameras caught the fender-crunching action from the passenger seat. Looking down the streets today, you cannot help but secretly hope to witness some first-hand automotive drama. You hear tyres squeal, you prepare to dive into the trash-cans, but it's just some old brown Buick slipping on the gradient.

Across town at the cemetery of Mission Dolores, a whitewashed chapel on the beautiful palm-lined boulevard of Dolores Street, a scene from Vertigo, the film that cast San Francisco's magnificent vistas in a starring role alongside James Stewart and Kim Novak, was played out. It was here that the acrophobic Scottie (Stewart) secretly followed the bogus Madeleine (Novak) to the site of Carlotta Valdez's grave. Following in their footsteps through the quiet chapel, San Francisco's oldest building, I scoured the graveyard for Carlotta's resting-place, but this detail turned out to be fictional. Her headstone apparently remained in the garden as a tourist attraction for some years after filming, but, with visitors passing the real tombstones to get to a film prop, the bishop decided that it had to go.

Still shadowing Madeleine, the millionaire shipping-magnate's wife, in his De Soto, Scottie later drove down to the one location which, above all others, is the city's defining symbol. I continued to shadow them both. Arching between the San Francisco peninsula and Marin County, the Golden Gate Bridge carries more than 100,000 vehicles a day across its two-mile span. Relatively few visitors, however, descend from the view- point at the Toll Plaza down to sea level at Fort Point, an old US Army fortress which squats directly below the rumbling roadway. It was here, set against the spectacular backdrop of the two towering 746ft steel suspension towers, that Madeleine faked her suicide attempt by falling into the freezing waters of San Francisco Bay. Here Scottie dived in to rescue her, and here my search for authentic movie ambience found a sensible cut-off point.

Back at the Phoenix, I checked the kidney-shaped pool for rock stars. There was neither living legend splashing about, nor the dead, floating variety. Just one young man, with handsome sideburns, dark sunglasses and a Britpop-ish lope, looked as if he must fit somewhere in the rock- schema - but I didn't know who he was.

SAN FRANCISCO: TAKE 1

Three airlines fly non-stop from London Heathrow to San Francisco: British Airways (0345 222111), United Airlines (0181-990 9900) and Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747). The lowest fares are available through discount agents rather than direct with the airline. For example, Quest Worldwide (0181-546 6000) quotes pounds 325 including tax on Virgin Atlantic, if you return before 21 June.

The Phoenix Hotel is at 601 Eddy Street, San Francisco, CA 94109 (tel 001 415 776 1380, fax 001 415 885 3109). Rooms start at $89 per night for a double, and include continental breakfast.

The San Francisco Movie Map gives a short resume and the locations of more than 100 films made in the area. These include classics such as The Maltese Falcon and Dirty Harry movies, as well as more recent productions such as Interview with the Vampire and The Rock. Copies from The Reel Map Co, 5214-F Diamond Heights, Suite 425, San Francisco, CA 94131.

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