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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Tourism For Locals: Burritt Alley, an Understated but Important Spot in S.F. Literary and Cinematic History

Posted By on Thu, Jun 26, 2014 at 10:00 AM

Here's lies a small plaque to an iconic film noir spot. - JUAN DE ANDA/SF WEEKLY
  • Juan De Anda/SF Weekly
  • Here's lies a small plaque to an iconic film noir spot.

San Francisco and its local sights are no stranger to being featured and glorified in the arts: from television, to literature to paintings and film.

But as is the trend in many works of art, San Francisco's beauty is reduced to a brief mention or cameo appearance. Luckily though, there are those artists who sincerely display the City by the Bay in an honest and earnest fashion, that the City itself not only becomes hosts to the events described but is a character itself.

Dashiell Hammett's 1929 detective novel The Maltese Falcon and its subsequent film adaptations immortalized not only the hard-boiled private detective genre but specific S.F. streets. And it was on a specific San Francisco street, where the actions of the novel and film begin to accelerate, and it deserves its place as a literary and film noir monument. It was in Burritt Alley that Brigid O'Shaughnessy shot Sam Spade's partner, Miles Archer.

And this is where this week's Tourism For Locals mystery spot begins.

Hammett came to San Francisco in July 1921 and stayed in San Francisco for eight years. During his short span in San Francisco, his writing explored and popularized not only San Francisco as a city but the detective novel genre in general with several short stories and ultimately, his magnum opus The Maltese Falcon.

Avoid Femme Fatales here! - JUAN DE ANDA/SF WEEKLY
  • Juan De Anda/SF Weekly
  • Avoid Femme Fatales here!

In the aforementioned novel, Hammett creates the ultimate iconic detective of that period: Sam Spade. Sam Spade combined several key attributes of this kind of investigator: keen eye for detail, frigid detachment and relentless determination to achieve his own justice. This last characteristic is apparent and pronounced in the opening pages of the novel, where his partner is murdered in a (now famous) San Francisco street.

In Burritt Alley, near Union Square at the intersection of Stockton and Bush streets, there is a plaque commemorating the pivotal event that gets the novel and films started: the murder of Miles Archer. Engraved upon it are the words: "On approximately this spot MILES ARCHER, PARTNER OF SAM SPADE, was done in by BRIGID O'SHAUGHNESSY."

The tiny plaque makes anyone who serendipitously encounters it realize that San Francisco is a massive mystery filled with the tiniest of clues that can lead to uncovering some sort of discovery or truth. It also enforces the idea that we should all be like detectives, on the look out for anything that can pique our curiosity.

In 1941, John Huston's equally distinguished motion picture was based in San Francisco, with Humphrey Bogart (Spade), Mary Astor (O'Shaughnessy), Sidney Greenstreet (Casper Guttmann) and Peter Lorre as Joe Cairo. The film was Huston's directorial debut and it earned three Academy Award nominations.

Upon release, it received critical acclaim and cemented its status as the American standard for film noir of mean streets, knife-edged heroes, dark shadows and tough dames. The late Rodger Ebert, one of the greatest film critics of the century, declared as one the best films of all time.

Although love for The Maltese Falcon is widespread and kindred, that doesn't seem to be true for the understated alley street way. It appears lonely and barren, especially when one compares it to the nearby hoards of tourists at the nearby Chinatown Gate.

Our advice as locals is to visit this local and national treasure and what better way than to take a copy of the book and read a few pages of Hammett's American classic.

Or you could just grab a drink at the nearby Burritt Room Tavern, the only visible tribute to the famous literary and cinematographic spot (besides the tiny plaque).

Happy sleuthing!

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF, Juan at @JuanPDeAnda, and like us on Facebook

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About The Author

Juan De Anda

Juan De Anda

Juan De Anda is a cultural correspondent with a concentration in tourism, literature, and lifestyle and has been writing for SF Weekly since 2013. As an avid traveler, he enjoys discovering destinations abroad as well as the never-ending hidden gems of San Francisco. #DondeAndaJuanDeAnda?


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