Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge

My first full day in San Francisco was partially spent marvelling at the steep gradients of the hills. They are as jaw-droppingly large as the tourist images suggest and totally add to the unique brilliance of the city. I would later explore these angular roads via the iconic cable car, but before then I hopped on a ferry to take a tour round America’s most notorious high-security prison, a practically inescapable place surrounded by icy water and fast-moving currents: Alcatraz. We journeyed there in the evening, when it was covered with an ominous layer of fog:

Alcatraz Island

Upon our arrival we learned that Alcatraz had been selected and preserved as a US National Park; after all, there was so much history that lay inside its walls. Al Capone had served a four-year term on the island not long after his conviction for income tax evasion. The events of June 1962, in which three prisoners escaped to the bay after undertaking a very elaborate escape plan, are still widely discussed to this day. It is not known if these three prisoners survived or drowned and there are various theories for what actually happened (the events were dramatised in Don Siegel’s excellent Escape From Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood).

The cell of Frank Morris – one of the prisoners who tunneled out of the moisture-damaged wall. Note the paper maché head that was used to distract the guards.

The prison itself is very atmospheric. You walk through the rows of cells as voices of guards and prisoners from the fantastic audio tour tell you about what it was like to live there fifty years ago. Tales of boredom, violence, escape attempts and solitary confinement emanate from behind the bars. You really have to go there and experience it for yourself; the myths still appear in popular culture, most recently in a short-lived eponymous television show airing on Fox.

A row of cells at Alcatraz Federal Prison

A number of films have also been shot at Alcatraz which no doubt appealed to me. Perhaps the most famous is Michael Bay’s The Rock (starring Sean Connery), probably his most critically successful film. Aside from Escape from Alcatraz, Clint Eastwood also went to the rock for The Enforcer, the surprisingly good third entry into the Dirty Harry series. On the arthouse side, John Boorman’s stellar Point Blank, a pioneering film in terms of its editing, was partially shot on Alcatraz, the first film to do so after its closure in 1963. I’m pretty sure this is one place where Boorman stuck his camera, the outside recreation area:

‘I want my 93,000!’ – Walker, Point Blank (1967)

Both before and after walking in the footsteps of some of the most violent and dangerous criminals, I visited the Golden Gate Bridge. We had driven across it when it was absolutely engulfed by an even thicker layer of fog, and when visiting it from beneath it hadn’t changed much. However, it wasn’t necessarily a disappointment; I was able to get a clearer picture the next day, and the mist added to the atmosphere of another movie location, the place of Kim Novak’s suicide leap in one of my favourite films, Vertigo.

The Golden Gate Bridge

The bridge itself is a stunning work of engineering. Since its opening in April 1937, it continues to be undamaged by earthquakes, and a team of hundreds work on it every day, painting it in the colour of international orange amongst other jobs. Just beneath the bridge is Fort Point, the military base that was intended to prevent an invasion should there be one (which there wasn’t). A great exhibition was on at the base celebrating 75 years of the bridge, but I was happy enough to just take a picture, as Fort Point was another location in Point Blank.

Fort Point

I’ve been travelling all over the place in the past few days and only spent a few days in San Francisco so I haven’t been able to blog every day. Tomorrow I’m off to the Grand Canyon, but who knows what will appear on this website next! I have no idea. See you then, anyway.

News – Alfred Hitchcock Retrospective

This is the first time I’ve done anything on this blog in the way of film news, not just because I don’t quite have enough time, but also because there are several dozen other places where you can read about every upcoming production, every cinematic hint, every update on directors with relative ease. However, the most recent development by the BFI in terms of film programming filled me with indescribable excitement, and I just had to write something brief about it.

This summer, to perhaps tie in with the Olympics season and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the BFI Southbank (or, National Film Theatre) will show all of Alfred Hitchcock’s surviving films in a retrospective the scale of which has never yet before been seen at the repertory cinema. That’s right, all 58 films that are available, from the newly restored The Pleasure Garden to his final feature, Family Plot, will be shown over a period between August and October, while some of his earlier silent films will also be shown across the country with live scores.

The Pleasure Garden - Hitchcock's first film, newly restored.

The BFI will be ‘celebrating the genius of a man who, it said, was as important to modern cinema as Picasso to modern art or Le Corbusier to modern architecture. Heather Stewart, the BFI’s creative director, said: “The idea of popular cinema somehow being capable of being great art at the same time as being entertaining is still a problem for some people. Shakespeare is on the national curriculum, Hitchcock is not.“‘

Psycho - a compelling cinematic experience.

For me, this is an astonishing move. I was brought up on Hitchcock movies and they were among my first introduction to what might be called ‘classic cinema’. My mother showed me all his most iconic features and even took me to see North by Northwest at the NFT, my first trip to that brilliant cinema which continues to shape my film choices to this day. As I’ll (hopefully) be a BFI member by August, I will go and see as many Hitchcock movies as I can. That’s right, morning, afternoon and evening, I’ll be there, sitting in one of the three screens, helping to celebrate one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers that ever lived. And this blog will be home to my excited self, reviewing every film I see and complaining about my subsequent lack of bank balance. I hope you’ll look forward to it.

'Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.' - Alfred Hitchcock