Debating which film is the Greatest San Francisco Movie of All Time is not new. So many of us have spent (wasted?) time arguing online over a swath of films set in the city, or scoffing at the latest listicle rankings on fly-by-night websites.
A few years ago, when we were afforded the time to truly pit these films against each other (lockdown), I took the opportunity to crush through as many SF movies as possible. Look, we’re damn blessed with many iconic SF films—you can check out eternal city favorite Vertigo at the Castro Theatre this weekend, for example. But today, I’m here to show you the light and settle this debate once and for all.
Because the one true answer to “What is the best SF movie of all-time?” is the Mike Myers-starring 1993 comedy classic So I Married An Axe Murderer.
For starters the sheer volume of ubiquitous San Francisco landmarks that Axe Murder packs in is unparalleled. So much so, that watching Axe Murderer is akin to taking a comprehensive tour of the city. Myers’ character, Charlie McKenzie, is a modern Beat poet of sorts, and his hangout? A coffee shop whose storefront is Vesuvio Cafe in North Beach; among the city’s most treasured bars.
A hilarious scene of Charlie and his best friend Tony Giardino (played by Anthony LaPaglia) takes place at Alcatraz, with park ranger Phil Hartman guiding them through the actual cell block A. I love this scene for driving home the unexpected romanticism of what is otherwise a morbid prison tour, which surely every respectable San Franciscan has been on at some point, right?
Charlie and Harriet (the maybe-not-so axe murdering apple of his eye, played by Nancy Travis) stroll through the Palace of Fine Arts, have a deep conversation while looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge, and even break-up momentarily at Alamo Square overlooking the city skyline. (Yeah, yeah, spoiler alert, but the film’s title does indicate that they get married!) The police station where Giardino works with his chief—Alan Arkin, of another SF classic, Freebie and the Bean—is set in the War Memorial building by City Hall.
The San Francisco Chronicle newsroom appears in the film, as does the erstwhile Fog City Diner on the Embarcadero, and Charlie drives up Hyde Street through Russian Hill in his red Karmann Ghia. There’s even a map of the city on Charlie’s back that he uses to tell Harriet where to scratch him. I.e, “Can you reach around and get Coit Tower?”
You see, perhaps the most accurate rubric of what constitutes the best film set in a city, is how much of the city does it capture? Is the city an actual character in the movie? In this case, resoundingly yes. And you don’t necessarily have to be a local to recognize it.
But for all the notable tourist sites that appear in the film, it even creates new tourist stops for movie buffs; another essential indicator that we’re watching the one true best SF movie. The house where Charlie’s parents lived is at 327 Hugo Street in the Inner Sunset. And while it doesn’t have the caché of throwing a pizza on the roof of the Breaking Bad house in Albuquerque, it’s still a photo worthy stopover.
The butcher shop that appears in the movie as “Meats Of The World,” where Harriet works and Charlie becomes smitten, was Prudente Meats in North Beach. Before that, it was the city’s oldest kosher butcher, Jacobi Meats. Today, it’s a North Beach Pizza location, where you can grab a slice and pretend that Harriet just wrapped you up a Scottish haggis.
Speaking of haggis, I went to a screening last month for the return of Alamo Drafthouse’s new Beer Dinner movie series. Alamo had brought in its lead R&D chef, Brad Sorenson, to curate a meal that paired with the film’s arc and beers from Black Hammer Brewing. I was especially stoked by a quasi-haggis bacon-wrapped country pate with Scottish rumbledethumps and onion gravy, paired with Black Hammer’s Deep Haus Foreign Stout. The event made me love the movie even more, because there we were, all warmly celebrating the film’s SF-ness and the city as a whole.
Along with the Alamo night and this modest one from a decade ago at the Roxie, find me another movie that has been at the center of as many spectacular gatherings of San Francisco quite like So I Married An Murderer? The SF Chronicle’s #TotalSF movie nights began with an Axe Murderer screening at the Balboa Theater in 2019, and the hosts even chased down the bagpiper from the flick, Jack Cunningham, who still lived in San Francisco. He attended the function, and looked on as his protege performed “If You Think I’m Sexy” by Rod Stewart, just like in the movie’s wedding celebration.
In fact, this film has been the only one honored with three separate live events in the #TotalSF series. Why? You guessed it, because it’s the best SF movie of all time.
“So I Married An Axe Murderer is this movie that nobody saw when it came out, but now it’s the best movie to see with 200-300 people in San Francisco,” #TotalSF co-host Peter Hartlaub told us. “There’s a lot of classic scenes that you can watch a million times. You know they’re coming and it’s just as funny every time. The glue of the movie is the soundtrack. It’s so perfectly ’90s. And it all just captures a time in SF that disappeared; pre-tech boom, where it was realistic that a Beat poet could afford to live here.”
From one Axe Murderer enthusiast to another, that’s simply *chef’s kiss* reasoning by Hartlaub. Because at a time when San Francisco is being chastised for its current “doom loop” state, here’s So I Married An Axe Murderer, continuing to help us rally around all that is remarkable and well… fun, about the city.
And then there’s the acting.
Mike Myers’ comedic genius is unquestioned. From Wayne’s World and the Austin Powers movies to, of course, his stint on SNL. (Former cast member Hartman—one of the funniest people that ever lived, RIP—damn near steals Axe Murderer as Ranger John “Vicky” Johnson.) Myers’ depiction of Charlie’s Scottish father, Stuart McKenzie, is like a charcoal study sketch for his portrayal of Fat Bastard in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.
Wait…in “So I Married an Axe Murderer” is Mike Myers' profession a poet? And he paid rent in San Francisco??— (((BrokeAssStuart))) (@BrokeAssStuart) January 9, 2022
LaPaglia and Alan Arkin have incredible chemistry, Charles Grodin’s annoyed driver and Stephen Wright’s sleepy cessna pilot are amazing cameos. Nancy Travis’ femme fatale is gorgeous and edgy, while Amanda Plummer is downright deranged. Airheaded Debi Mazar and Brenda Fricker as Charlie’s horny Scottish mom round out the superb ensemble cast.
Above all, the best movie about a city should champion that locale. The city is as much a part of the film as the plot and the actors, and So I Married An Axe Murderer embodies that in spades. There’s even cult-ish trivia that deepens this connection, like how the coffee shop scene was slated to be filmed at City Lights BookStore, but owner and legendary Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti wouldn’t allow it, saying, “I know it’s a comedy but axe murders and City Lights don’t go together.”
I’ve purposefully stopped short of comparing Axe Murderer to other SF films, because they all should be commemorated. But none of them celebrate—and help us celebrate—the history, the folly, the charm, and the beauty unique to San Francisco, quite like So I Married An Axe Murderer.