Five films that paved the way for David Fincher’s Se7en

Featuring masterful performances from Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, David Fincher’s neo-noir thriller Se7en pushed the envelope on how horrific a mainstream film could be. But which films laid the groundwork for this landmark serial killer movie?

Paul O’Callaghan

Se7en (1995)

Se7en (1995)

“You know this isn’t gonna have a happy ending. It’s not possible.” Thus intones world-weary detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) as Se7en gears up for its gut-wrenching climax. He’s talking to his wet-behind-the-ears partner David Mills (Brad Pitt), but he might as well be speaking directly to the camera.

Two decades on from its original release, David Fincher’s sophomore feature remains a breathtakingly bleak portrait of an American city drowning in moral corruption. The Oscar-sweeping success of The Silence of the Lambs (1991) inspired a slew of grisly serial killer procedural thrillers, but here the gloom is ratcheted up almost to the point of expressionism. From its claustrophobic, conspicuously anonymous urban setting, to the rain that falls incessantly throughout the investigation, it’s clear that Fincher is far less concerned with realism than he is with using all the tools at his disposal to evoke the frayed psyches of his protagonists.

Se7en (1995)

Se7en (1995)

But while Se7en’s despairing world view and technical prowess have been discussed to death over the years, its appearance as part of the BFI Black Star season brings to the fore one of the film’s more optimistic elements. The New Black Cinema movement of the late 1980s and early 90s gave rise to a handful of noir-inflected crime films, such as Bill Duke’s Deep Cover (1992) and Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), in which black detectives had to battle endemic racism as they went about their already difficult business.

Here, while the sneering tone of a fellow cop in the opening scene suggests that Freeman’s Somerset may be in for a similarly rough ride, it transpires that he’s held in the highest regard by most of his peers, and race proves refreshingly incidental – indeed, his skin colour isn’t even specified in Andrew Kevin Walker’s original script. His relentless stoicism and refusal to relinquish some degree of faith in humanity saves the film from total nihilism, and the role was pivotal in establishing Freeman as the benevolent elder statesman we know and love today.

Se7en’s enormous box office success ensured that Hollywood was quick to take notes, and the film continues to exert a significant influence. Fincher’s exquisitely artful brand of urban despair clearly foreshadows Christopher Nolan’s depiction of Gotham City in his Dark Knight trilogy, and also Zack Snyder’s somewhat cruder take on the DC Comics universe. Meanwhile, its audaciously inventive murder scenarios clearly gave rise to the Saw franchise and its wave of imitators. However, in a 2009 on-stage interview at BFI Southbank, Fincher’s response to accusations of being responsible for torture porn was a resounding “fuck you”, pointing out that the film’s litany of unspeakable acts all take place off screen.

But what of the film’s antecedents? Here are five key titles that helped paved the way for this game-changing crime thriller.

M (1931)

Director Fritz Lang

M (1931)

If a single film can take credit for shaping the serial killer sub-genre, it’s Fritz Lang’s astonishingly innovative first talkie. This sumptuously atmospheric tale of a tortured child-murderer, played by a baby-faced Peter Lorre, was shot outside Berlin in 1930 as the Nazis were on the rise. While the party’s concerns that the film was intended as a direct critique of them proved unfounded, there’s no denying that it positively drips with disdain for the urban environment it depicts. The action unfolds in a shadowy netherworld of smoky basements and drinking dens as the criminal underground joins forces with the police to track down the killer.

Psycho (1960)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Psycho (1960)

It’s been well documented that Fincher’s first experience of feature filmmaking was nightmarish. He once told Sight & Sound magazine, “I thought I’d rather die of colon cancer than do another movie”, after the constant studio interference he had to contend with on Alien 3 (1992). He was lured back to Hollywood solely on the strength of Se7en’s gut-punching final act, which he likened, in a 2011 interview, to Hitchcock’s most memorable act of audience wrong-footing: “It was as impressive to me that Kevin Spacey would show up spattered with blood at the two-hour point of that movie as it is that Janet Leigh gets slashed to death in the shower in Psycho. It was such a different way to spin that top.” Fincher’s use of title sequences as an integral part of the storytelling is also clearly indebted to Hitchcock’s groundbreaking collaborations with Saul Bass.

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Director Norman Jewison

Sidney Poitier (left) in In the Heat of the Night (1967)

It’s quite startling to compare and contrast Freeman’s Somerset with Hollywood’s first major black detective hero, Sidney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs. They share many of the same attributes – both are fiercely intelligent, meticulously observant and unwaveringly dignified. But the attitudes of the characters around them couldn’t be more different. While Freeman is accepted unquestioningly as an expert in his field, Tibbs encounters full-blown bigotry at every turn. Indeed, he’s only presented with the opportunity to solve a small-town Mississippi murder after he’s accused of the crime himself, for no other reason than being a black stranger with a sizeable amount of money in his wallet. The fact that the films were made less than 30 years apart would be a heartening reminder of how far America has come in terms of race relations were it not for the chilling deterioration we seem to be witnessing at present in the real world.

Cruising (1980)

Director William Friedkin

Cruising (1980)

Fincher said that he approached Se7en like a “tiny genre movie, the kind of movie Friedkin might have made after The Exorcist”. There are certainly striking parallels to be drawn with Cruising, Friedkin’s lurid tale of a young undercover cop (Al Pacino) tasked with infiltrating New York’s gay leather scene in order to track down a serial killer. Both films feature antagonists driven by contempt for the ‘sinful’ behaviour of their victims, and both make the questionable move of equating non-mainstream sexuality with darkness and danger. But while Cruising was fiercely renounced by gay rights groups on release, Friedkin allows Pacino’s character to question his own sexuality in a manner that feels somewhat ahead of its time.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Director Jonathan Demme

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Fincher struggled fiercely to get Se7en made with its brutal ending intact, and his success would have been almost unthinkable had it not been for the runaway success of The Silence of the Lambs a few years earlier. Jonathan Demme’s slick adaptation of Thomas Harris’s superior pulp page-turner proved beyond all doubt that audiences could be captivated by even the most reprehensible of characters, provided they were sufficiently charismatic. Kevin Spacey’s John Doe is cut from the same cloth as Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter – both are eloquent, unflappable killers who seem to delight as much in verbal one-upmanship as in dismemberment. Both films also use their villains extremely sparingly, ensuring that they dominate proceedings while remaining terrifyingly elusive.

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