Every once in a while I stumble on to an old film noir movie I haven’t seen yet that has terrific on location San Francisco settings. This time it was the 1953 murder mystery ‘No Escape’. I call it a murder mystery, but you’ll probably guess who the murderer will turn out to be before you’re fifteen minutes into the film. It stars Lew Ayres, Sonny Tufts and Marjorie Steele. The title ‘No Escape’ has a double meaning in the film. First, that you can’t escape from the police and get out of San Francisco if you commit murder, and second, it’s the title of a song written by Lew Ayres’ character, John Tracy. Although the movie poster refers to it as a “Haunting Melody” it’s probably one of the most boring songs you’ll ever hear in a movie. The basic plot of the film follows the three main characters around San Francisco during a police manhunt for a murder suspect, Pat Peterson (Marjorie Steele) who believes she committed the murder, John Tracy, who the police believe committed the crime and are searching for, and Detective Simon Shane, (Sonny Tufts) a police officer who is in love with Pat and doesn’t want her to go to jail for the murder. The story begins with Peterson and her boyfriend, Shane, going to a nightclub where Tracy is playing a piano. Peterson and Shane get into an argument. When Peterson leaves the table, Tracy asks her to join him. When he offers to get Pat a cab home, the night club owner, a slick character named Peter Hayden, intercepts them, slips Tracy some money, and takes Pat home himself. Tracy, who was kind of taken with Peterson, gets drunk and decides to go to Hayden’s studio apartment to give him back his money when he finds that Hayden has been murdered. That’s enough plot. (Thumbnail images)
The movie opens up with a tracking scene of traffic heading south on the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. I know what you’re thinking, “Sonny Tufts! Somebody get me the remote control to guard, and a bowl of popcorn!” Actually, he wasn’t too bad in this movie, if he was ever bad in any movie! I think that was just a running joke that nobody under their 50s would know anything about.
Lew Ayres will be remembered most for his roles in ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, the Dr. Kildare film series, and ‘Johnny Belinda’, although his career was on a downhill slide by 1953.
Sonny Tufts will probably be remembered mainly as another “Hollywood discovery” who was never discovered.
I can’t find out much about Marjorie Steele; she only made four films.
My comparison shot is from a car heading south on the Golden Gate Bridge as well as those in the film, so it’s the opposite view of the movie shot, but it lines up pretty good.
As the camera pans around Downtown San Francisco from Ina Coolbrith Park the narrator refers to San Francisco as one of the most beautiful cities on earth. I’ll back him up on that.
Still just as pretty of a view from Ina Coolbrith Park today as it was in 1953.
The movie switches to a silhouette of a man being smashed over the head and murdered. The narrator tells us that there is no escape from San Francisco when the police throw a dragnet around the city for you. We see a crude map of San Francisco before the movie shifts to different locations around the city as the narrator tell us that you can never get away once the police spring their trap. What’s interesting about this map is the road designated as 5 at the bottom of the picture. This was California State Route 5 that came up the western side of the peninsula, wound around Lake Merced and becomes Sloat Blvd. Opened in 1934; it’s still there today, but it was changed in 1964 to California Route 35 to avoid confusion with the opening of Interstate 5.
The movie highlights on two separate occasions places that you’ll be stopped by the police if you’re wanted and try to get out of the city. First, the now obsolete toll booths on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Also the Ferry Building, if you try to escape that way.
Then the camera moves to other locations of escape where you’ll be nabbed by the police. I didn’t get a chance to do updates on all of them, but here’s some from the movie that I didn’t want to leave out. The toll booths on the Bay Bridge, and the old Southern Pacific Train Depot at 3rd and Townsend near where Oracle Park is today; a major scene in the movie was filmed here. The train station was demolished in 1976. Also, there’s a nice shot of Ocean Beach and the Great Highway.
Tracy learns from a drawing on the floor of the murder scene showing Pat as the Pride of Pinker’s that Peterson works at Pinker’s Department Store at Market Street and Grant Avenue. Pinker’s Department Store is actually I Magnin’s at Stockton Street and Geary Blvd. In the next scene, Shane goes in to Pinker’s and tells Pat that Hayden has been murdered and he has been called into the case. Peterson tells Shane she went to Hayden’s apartment where they eventually got into an argument and she hit him in the head with a vase. Shane lets her know that he has no intention of arresting her.
Shane and Peterson go to her apartment on the corner of Filbert and Mason Streets to decide what they’re going to do. Tracy, who has learned where Peterson lives, goes there to talk to her, but Shane thinks that he is there to blackmail her. Peterson isn’t so sure. Because of the tree, I had to take my update a little further out in Filbert Street to get Coit Tower and Saints Peter and Paul Church in the picture.
If you’re going to film a murder mystery in San Francisco before 1968, you’ll have to include the old Hall of Justice on Kearny Street. Almost every film noir movie shot in the city has a scene there; ‘Lady from Shanghai’, ‘Impact’, ‘The Man Who Cheated Himself’, ‘Lineup’, etc. When the police match John Tracy’s fingerprints found at Hayden’s apartment to him, he becomes the prime suspect, which is perfectly alright with police detective Simon Shane. Are you starting to get the idea who the murderer is? The Hall of Justice, across Kearny Street from Portsmouth Square, was demolished in 1968 and replaced by a Hilton Hotel.
The net tightens around John Tracy, who police believe is hiding somewhere on Market Street, seen here at Market and Mason Streets. Notice the old Esquire and Telenews Movie Theaters where Hallidie Plaza is today.
Still believing that she killed Hayden, Pat begins searching for Tracy to try to help him. They agree to meet at the Powell and Market Street cable car turnaround and begin to fall in love with each other during a cable car ride. What better spot to fall in love? You can see a lot of this corner in this scene and cable cars are beginning to practice for their return in August or September so I was able to get one in my update. Well, I’ll have to leave you dangling on the edge of you seat because I didn’t get a chance to do any more updates. Needless to say, if Pat isn’t falling in love with Shane but Tracy instead, you can guess the denouement.