Mainstream popular culture hasn’t really caught up to this situation yet. Depictions of San Francisco that linger in people’s minds include the sitcom Full House – a show that interestingly was also built around property in the form of its now-famous ‘painted ladies’, a set of houses that are included on tours of the City, but which would now require an average family more than just Uncle Joey and Uncle Jesse moving in to pay the mortgage on a $2.9 million house . A more recent, (also terrible and failed) network TV show called Trauma depicted the adventurous, colorful lives of emergency medical employees in San Francisco, though in the few years since its cancellation we have heard about how nurses, firefighters, teachers and other workers critical to the infrastructure of the City are unable to live within its borders due to rising cost of living.
‘Pacific Heights’ is an often-overlooked film centered around the topic of property in San Francisco, and makes for interesting, albeit head-smackingly dumbfounding, viewing in retrospect. Made in 1990, New York Times critic Janet Maslin called it “the first eviction thriller”. While the film precedes even the first tech boom-and-bust in the Bay Area in the late 90s, its characters, themes, and underlying values would nonetheless probably find an appreciative audience among the new tech yuppie landlord class vying for control of the City and beyond.
The movie’s central characters are Drake Goodman and Patty Palmer - played by Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith – a beaming young urban professional couple who take that giant leap into the American Dream buy buying their first home, a beautiful Victorian in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. Needing help with the mortgage, the ambitious couple decides to put two rooms in the house up for rent as apartments. Enter the charming Carter Hayes, played by Michael Keaton. On the surface, Hayes seems like the perfect tenant. His humble, down-to-earth personality sweeps the couple off their feet, and after driving up to the house in a Porsche and waving around handfuls of cash, how could they even think of turning him down? There’s just one catch – while he shows off a list of personal references, he also asks the couple not to check his credit because of a ‘misunderstanding’ he had in the past.
It’s an all the more ridiculous situation looking back at this film in 2015, when open houses for rentals in San Francisco have become such a cutthroat affair that potential tenants arrive in their hundreds, wearing their Sunday best and armed with glowing resumes and credit reports, even attempting
to outdo each other with gifts for their future landlords.
(A quick aside, since we’re talking about the house - the property shown in the film’s exterior shots is not even in Pacific Heights. What we’re looking at is the Victorian at 19th and Texas Street in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of the City. Here is the problem with that detailed in graphic form:)
Still, it’s something of a moot point to go into too much detail on these antisocial antics and we’ll see why in a moment. Their relevance to the film’s plot is that despite all of these annoying, disturbing and sometimes dangerous ploys, the couple is told by the police and a lawyer that they cannot evict him. The policeman goes so far as to quote a law whereby a tenant apparently has rights after simply physically entering the property and there is nothing the couple can do to legally evict him.
The problem is that no such law exists. As IMDB so helpfully lays out for us in writing about the goofs in this film: “No tenant has any legal right to remain on the premises of a single-family or multiple-family dwelling in any state without payment, and furthermore, because of Carter Hayes’ destructive acts (e.g., releasing the cockroaches and physical damage to the unit), Drake had more than enough good cause to have Carter forcibly evicted, either by the City of San Francisco police or the San Francisco County sheriff.”
So the ‘goof’ in this case is just the basic premise of the entire film. Whoops.
“You realize you're wondering what's the burning that you smell
Could it be the dying world or could it be the pit?”
Fun fact, on their first album ‘Tales of Terror’, Hallow’s Eve actually has a song about a house called ‘The Mansion’, the first lines of which are:
I walked into the room
There came a voice saying aloud
"Thou hast no business here!"
"Your best bets to get out!"
A foreshadowing of the troubles to come for our lead couple, perhaps? Or a preview of their future resistance against their errant interloper?
Sadly, of course, these were all just coincidences fueled by my overactive imagination and love of conspiracy theories and connecting unrelated dots. I was disappointed even further to learn that two years before Pacific Heights was released, the same Hallow’s Eve song was used in the highly-rated Keanu Reeves vehicle ‘River’s Edge’. More than likely its inclusion in this movie was just a case of Hollywood inbreeding rather than any knowledge of the band or the genre. Boo.
In any case, back to the story at hand, because despite the premise falling apart like cinematic Jenga, I did stick with this stinker till the end. After injuring Drake and in the middle of legal proceedings between him and the couple, the enigmatic Carter Hayes disappears. DUM DUM DUM!!! It’s later learned that he has done this before - he is in fact named James Danforth, a professional con artist who apparently specializes in goading unsuspecting landlords into violence against his person so that he eventually comes away owning their property. ‘Carter Hayes’ was actually the name of his last property-owning victim. All of this is discovered during a strange and somewhat incongruous change of pace in the middle of the film, when Palmer goes full-gumshoe and digs around her troublemaking tenant’s past, eventually traveling to southern California to try and find out who he really is. It’s a role-reversed nod to San Francisco-based classic ‘Vertigo’ perhaps, and not director John Schlesinger’s only allusion to Hitchock in this movie – ‘The Birds’ leading lady and Melanie Griffith’s mother Tippi Hedren also makes a cameo in ‘Pacific Heights’ as Hayes’ unsuspecting next victim who he is grooming to dupe after Goodman and Palmer.
Except for the tenants, of course - but who really cares about them anyway?
Legal Eagle Squawk-O-Meter: 0/10: The eagle is sad for your laws are false.
A-Guy-You-Can-Have-A-Beer-With Main Character Relatability Meter: 0/10: I would rather drink myself to death alone than have a beer with these jags.
Overall Watchability Rating: 2/10 The premise of the film falls apart early on. I liked seeing Mako on screen again, so I give this a two. At the end of the day it depends who you are, I guess. I can imagine this is a go-to chill out film at Mark Zuckerberg's pad in the Mission.