Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Brian Hollins has spent the last 16 years on the trail of movie locations all over the city.
The scene of protagonist Archie Bollen and his girlfriend May sitting on the balcony of a charming Victorian house in San Francisco lasts only a few seconds in the 1968 psychedelic movie Petulia. But it sent Brian Hollins, who’s adopted the nickname City Sleuth, on a weeks-long hunt to track down its exact location in real life.
Hollins is a theatrical detective, a retired Silicon Valley guy who runs Reel SF, a blog dedicated to pinpointing San Francisco locations depicted in classic films, many of which are film noir. The Victorian house proved to be a challenge. It’s striking: a vibrant, blue two-story home with ornate white columns that guide the eyes to a lavish front porch and that give the building a sort of elegant-gingerbread-house feel. But there are virtually no clues that reveal its location: no street sign, no distinct buildings nearby, not even a shot of the city skyline.
Searches on Google turned up nothing, and visits to blogs and IMDb proved fruitless. “I couldn't find it anywhere,” Hollins says. But then, an unexpected breakthrough.
“One day, I was driving back from the opera with my wife and I made a right turn on a street—the same right turn I've made for the last 10 years going home from the opera,” he says. “I just happened to look at the house on the corner and I recognized it instantly.” That’s it!
It turned out to be the Talbot-Dutton House, located on the corner of Pacific Avenue and Franklin Street. Built by the lumber businessman William Talbot in the 1860s as a wedding gift to his daughter, it’s preserved today as a historic landmark. As Hollins recalls, the house looked exactly the same in 2011 as it did in the film Petulia. The house is one of the 27 locations he’s tracked down so far for that movie alone.
Five years later, Hollins still hasn’t shaken off the excitement. He dubs triumphs like this one his “eureka moments,” and says it’s what kept up his passion for the project over the last 16 years (and counting). In that time, he’s sought out every location he possibly could for nearly 30 classic movies. He’s found the rooftop from which detective John Ferguson watches his colleague fall to his death in the dramatic opening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 Vertigo. He’s traced every location of the beloved 13-minute car chase in the 1968 thriller Bullitt. Hollins even found the exact spot the crew filmed the opening scene to the 1949 movie Thieves Highway using a peculiarly shaped building captured way in the distance as his sole clue.
Locations of the more famous movies are easier to track down, since there’s plenty of information online. But Hollins says he’s proudest of the really challenging cases. Devoted readers sometimes help out when he’s stumped. In one case, a woman helped Hollins solve a two-year mystery after revealing that as a child, she lived in the very house he was looking for from the 1962 movie Experiment in Terror.
Usually, a single shot from the movie is all that’s needed to jumpstart Hollins’s detective instincts. From that image, he gathers hints: a funky building, a mundane sign, a familiar view, or an intersection. When he has a rough idea of where the location might be, he looks up the neighborhood on Google Street View. “Without that, I don’t know if I would’ve kept his up,” he says.
Once confirmed, he grabs his camera and sets out to see the location for himself. His wife usually waits patiently in the car as he pulls over to get the perfect shot of the location, mounting the camera exactly where the film crew did in filming the scene. “My wife wonders why I do it,” he says jokingly.
But for Hollins, this is more than just a hobby. It’s also a unique lens through which he and his fans can experience the history of San Francisco. He says he only seeks out movies that are at least 40 years old because he wants to see how the city has changed over the decades. He focuses on classic noir films, in which locations are strategically chosen to emotionally draw the viewers into the scene. Below, we mapped the locations he’s found so far for the movie The Penalty:
Classic noir films bring out a sense of nostalgia, reminding viewers of a different time and inducing a longing for the lost neighborhoods of San Francisco. “It’s kind of like a time-warped moment,” Hollins says, recalling when he found out that Jimmy Stewart’s character in Vertigo lived in a house right around the corner from his apartment—a discovery that ignited the entire project. "I stood where the camera was mounted and I imagined myself standing next to Alfred Hitchcock directing the action, and I can see Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart across in the porch of the house chatting away,” Hollins says. The house remained virtually the same when he visited in 2000, but has since been remodeled.
On his blog, Hollins posts his new shots with the original scene to show the “then and now” changes. Some sites have either become unrecognizable or vanished altogether; in other neighborhoods, remnants of the past—an old hotel, for example—still stand. ”You’re looking across the financial district, say, at the bay, and you compare it with today,” Hollins says, “and my gosh, it's just different with all the new buildings and high-rises."
Then there are places like Chinatown, where shopfronts have changed but historical buildings are still intact. “The feel of the neighborhood is still the same,” Hollins says.
Of the many now-defunct cigar factories in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Hollins is pretty sure he’s tracked down the very one (the “New Chow Chong” factory) that Frisco Pete passes during a police chase in the 1920 crime drama The Penalty. Hollins first tried searching through old city directories, but to no avail. Browsing through public library records and consulting the Chinese Historical Society were of no help either, Hollins describes on his blog.
This time, a break came from a 1905 residential directory that listed “Chow Chong & Co, Cigars 23 Sullivan Al.” Suspecting that the factory in the movie may have replaced this one after the 1906 earthquake, Hollins pored over old fire insurance maps from that time. He zoomed in on the clues, mapping out where the passage could have been. And after much sleuthing, he found it, at 15 Jason Court. Though the signs are gone now and the passageway has been filled in, Hollins doesn’t have any doubt he’s found what he’s been searching for.
Look no further, he writes, than the uneven foundation level at the bottom of the factory’s door. “[Ninety-six] years later, at 15 Jason Court it’s exactly the same.”