San Francisco in the Movies: Taking Goldfish To The Ocean

Photo of the apartment building used in the Dark Passage film, Montgomery and Filbert, San Francisco
Apartment building used in Dark Passage, Montgomery and Filbert, San Francisco

A escaped convict is on the run in San Francisco, one step ahead of the police, trying to prove he didn’t commit the crime that sent him to prison. The only person he trusts is a wealthy woman who lives in a lavish apartment on Telegraph Hill.

That’s a basic mostly spoiler-free summary of the plot of Dark Passage, one of the great “San Francisco films.” Released in 1947, Dark Passage is notable for its use of location, notably the apartment shown above, and for its unusual use of the film’s biggest star — Humphrey Bogart — for the first third of the film. And like other San Francisco films, it has quite a bit of geographic weirdness. For example, when Sam the cab driver (Tom D’Andrea) tells Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) a story about a fare who got in the cab carrying a bowl with goldfish in it.

Sam the cab driver tells the tale:

You should see the character I had for a fare yesterday. Picked him up at the Ferry Building. Standing on the curb with a big goldfish bowl in his arm, full of water. Two goldfish. Climbs in the back of the cab, sits down and puts the goldfish bowl in his lap.

Where do you think he wants to go? To the ocean.

But he doesn’t know there’s seven hills. Seven steep hills in between.

So we start off. Up the first hill, slippity slop, down the hill, slippity slop. Water all over the back seat, the goldfish on the floor. He picks them up, puts them back in the bowl…up we go again, slippity slop, water all over the…

You never saw such a wet guy in your life when we got to that ocean. And two tired goldfish.

Sam the cab driver (Tom D’Andrea) telling the story about the goldfish to Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart)

Sam’s “seven steep hills in between” the Ferry Building and ocean isn’t quite a geographical error, but it is weird. The seven hills of San Francisco are spread across the city, primarily concentrated in the northeast and mid-south parts of the city, so there’s no way a normal trip between the two locations would climb all seven.

San Francisco’s Seven Hills

San Francisco has a lot more than seven hills (more than 40), but because of Rome’s famous seven hills, people in the past strived to define San Francisco’s seven. There’s no consensus about the City’s seven hills, so I picked a list pretty much at random, ending up on San Francisco Almanac by Gladys C. Hansen (heights of the hills from Wikipedia). These are the hills and their elevations:

  • Telegraph Hill (284 ft, 87 m)
  • Nob Hill (376 ft, 115 m)
  • Rincon Hill (100 ft, 30 m)
  • Twin Peaks (904 & 910 ft, 276 & 277 m)
  • Russian Hill (294 ft, 90 m)
  • Mt. Sutro (911 ft, 278 m)
  • Mt. Davidson (925 ft, 282 m)

Sam’s Route from Ferry Building to the Ocean

What would a seven hills trips from Bay to Ocean look like? I used Google Maps to find out, and the map below shows a version that visits the hills in this order: Rincon Hill, Telegraph Hill, Russian Hill, Nob Hill, Twin Peaks, Mt. Davidson, and Mt. Sutro. The trip is 18.4 miles (29.8 km), and Google tells me that by car it would take 1 hour and 27 minutes. The route has 2,356 ft (718 m) of climbing, 2,201 ft (671 m) of descending.

In contrast, a direct route from the Ferry Building to the Ocean — like California / 30th Avenue / Clement / Point Lobos — is only 6.8 miles (11 km) and just over 30 minutes by car.

What Would The Goldfish Taxi Ride Cost?

What would an 18.4 mile / 1 hour 27 minute cab ride have cost in 1947? The best answer I have found so far is in a 1949 photo in the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection showing “De Soto Sedan Service driver Joe Passan” in a taxi with a sign saying “Anywhere in S.F. $1.35 maximum [for] any direct non-stop trip.” I also found an article in the January 4, 1950 San Francisco Chronicle that notes that proposed taxi fares are 30 cents for first 1/3 mile, $1.50 for excess of four miles. Adjusting for inflation, $1.35 in 1949 has about the same purchasing power as $15.50 in 2021.

Today’s taxi fares for San Francisco are $3.50 for the first one-fifth mile, and $0.55 for each additional one-fifth mile, and $0.55 for each minute of waiting or traffic delay (it seems that the maximum has disappeared). Assuming no delay, I calculate a fare of $54.10 for the 18.4 mile trip.

Screenshot from the Dark Passage movie, Humphrey Bogart's character at Greenwich Street, San Francisco
Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) on the run, turns to look back while at Greenwich Street, with Coit Tower in the background

Dark Passage is an excellent way to see San Francisco in the late 1940s, has an unusual plot, and great stars. Add it to your queue if you can. And if you have goldfish, bring them near the screen during Sam the cabbie’s tale about his trip on the “seven steep hills in between” the Bay and the Ocean.

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