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Gone Girl, Psycho, and How David Fincher Borrows From Alfred Hitchcock

Rosamund Pike as Amy in Gone Girl
Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn pictured Amy (Rosamund Pike) as a “Hitchcock blonde.”

© 2014 Twentieth Century Fox and Regency Enterprises.

This post contains spoilers for Gone Girl, Psycho, and many other David Fincher and Alfred Hitchcock movies.

The most important shot in David Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl is a close-up of the back of a woman’s head. It’s the first shot of the movie, the last shot of the movie, and the one that most succinctly conveys the movie’s central theme and mystery: How well do you really know the person you’re married to?

It’s also straight out of Hitchcock. Hitchcock, who was obsessed with icy, sophisticated platinum blondes just like the one Rosamund Pike plays in Gone Girl, returned to this image again and again. In Vertigo, when Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie is puzzling out the mystery of Kim Novak’s “Madeleine,” the camera pushes in on the back of her head—it becomes the vortex he gets lost in on for the rest of the movie.

In Psycho, the big reveal of the killer comes when the camera finally closes in on the back of the mother’s head. While in Gone Girl, Nick (Ben Affleck) imagines “cracking open [Amy’s] head,” in Psycho we literally get to see inside.

Watching this shot and many others from Gone Girl, I couldn’t help but think about Psycho. I first thought of the movie during the scene in which a killer (in this case, Amy) is finally taken in for questioning but tries to fool the cops and FBI, by sitting hunched over and pretending she is the kind of harmless person who, to borrow a phrase from Norman Bates, “wouldn’t even harm a fly.”

The following scene includes a shot of the victim’s blood spiraling down a shower drain. Was I imagining these connections? Probably not. During a Q&A following the screening I attended, an audience member, setting up a question for Pike, said, “I haven’t seen a character that has such a convincingly psychotic presence since Norman Bates in Psycho.” Though the question wasn’t for Fincher, he interjected: “Bing, bing, bing.”

Looking at Gone Girl in this light, more parallels with Psycho emerge. In both movies, the biggest twist comes halfway through, upending our sense of who we thought was the hero. Gone Girl’s most violent scene features a series of rapid-fire cuts reminiscent of Psycho’s famous shower scene. The disconcerting technique is paired with a strobing effect reminiscent of the flashes of light Hitchcock used to heighten tense scenes in both Psycho and Rear Window.

Borrowing heavily from Hitchcock isn’t anything new for Fincher, or for Gillian Flynn.     Fincher’s interest in film was kindled when, as a child, he was taken by his father to see a re-release of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Flynn had her own formative encounter with Hitchcock’s movies. “My dad was a film professor,” she explained to the Daily Beast in 2012, “and so I inherited his love of movies … especially scary movies.” She says she “watched Psycho a million times” and in the mirror “obsessively practiced the final shot of Anthony Perkins: the Norman Bates smile right at the camera. I can still do it really well.” (For a recent feature on Vulture, she again chose Psycho as one of the biggest influences on her books.)

Fincher’s movies have been in dialogue with Hitchcock’s since the beginning—and not just in his serial killer movies (1995’s Se7en and 2007’s Zodiac). The Fincher film that draws most obviously from Hitchcock is Panic Room (2002). This is most clear in the opening title sequence, which is taken more or less wholesale from the opening of North by Northwest. Using the effect Hitchcock helped pioneer with that movie, Fincher uses “situational type” to show the credits hovering, three-dimensionally, just in front of New York City buildings.

Fincher himself reportedly described Panic Room as “Rear Window meets Straw Dogs,” and the parallels in the movie’s high-concept premise and single-location setting are fairly obvious: Both Panic Room and Rear Window find the protagonists trapped in their apartments where they sit helpless to stop the crime unraveling around them. (In the more modern Panic Room, they watch the break-in via surveillance cameras, rather than through an apartment window.) Several shots also seem indebted to Hitchcock. The break-in is shown in a highly unusual uninterrupted shot that has the camera backing out and away from the main characters, eventually heading down the stairs toward the street, in a sequence reminiscent of a famous long take in Hitchcock’s Frenzy. The last shot of the movie, which shows the characters looking at real estate listings in the park, is jazzed up through the use of a “Hitchcock zoom” (so named because Hitchcock helped popularize it with Vertigo).

Just as Panic Room is a sort of postmodern take on Rear Window, 1997’s The Game—as critics have pointed out in the years since its release—seems to riff on Vertigo. Like that movie, The Game follows a protagonist who is lured into a series of staged interactions. As in Vertigo, the hero is haunted by the suicide of a loved one (in The Game, the protagonist’s father), and both movies climax when the hero heads to the top of a tall building and ends up recreating that suicide. (In Vertigo, the first suicide is merely staged; in The Game, the second one is.)

Other parallels are more subtle. Panic Room and Rear Window are both set in New York City, Vertigo and The Game in San Francisco. (The Bay Area, where The Birds also takes place, was a favorite setting of Hitchcock’s; Fincher, who grew up there, returned to it for Zodiac and The Social Network.) And The Game includes a sequence that seems copied almost shot-for-shot from another Hitchcock movie, 1946’s Notorious: In each, the heroes are covertly drugged by a poison placed in their coffee, and the directors present a point-of-view shot that shows their blurred, wavering perspective as they try to escape but collapse to the floor.

Like Hitchcock, Fincher has rarely been credited as a writer on his films, but he works closely with screenwriters to shape his scripts and selects stories that reflect his obsessions. In Gone Girl, many of the most Hitchcockian touches come from Flynn—in fact, there are even more in the book. In the novel, when Amy takes creates a false identity on Facebook to make friends with Nick’s mistress, she chooses the name Madeleine Elster—the false identity used by Kim Novak’s character in Vertigo. There’s also the Vertigo-esque turn of events, in both the book and the movie, in which Desi compels Amy to dye her hair blonde again, so she can look like she did when they were together before. On the casting of Amy, Flynn said, “I had pictured vaguely a Hitchcock blonde.” (Update, Oct. 7: As a commenter points out, one of Rosamund Pike’s first major roles was actually starring in Hitchcock Blonde.) No wonder Fincher and Flynn are already teaming back up again.

There are broader parallels between Hitchcock and Fincher as well. Both directors have shown an interest in voyeurism. “That’s the foundation of my career,” Fincher has said. Both have tested the limits of new technologies and are known for experimenting with their title sequences. Both are known for using detailed storyboards to plan out their films. Both deploy pull-the-rug-out twists in their psychological thrillers. And both have proven too chilly to win over the Academy.

None of this is to say that Fincher is on the same level as Hitchcock (no one is) or that these similarities are necessarily intended as homage. (When John Landis told Hitchcock that Brian De Palma intended Dressed to Kill as an homage, Hitchcock, as Jason Zinoman recounts in his horror history Shock Value, responded, “You mean fromage.”) It’s not essential that you think of the last shot of Psycho—the close-up Gillian Flynn practiced in the mirror again and again—when Gone Girl ends with Amy turning to give her own smile at the camera. What’s frightening is the thought that someone as scary as Norman Bates could be sleeping in your bed.

Read more in Slate about Gone Girl.