Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.
The true first rule of Fight Club is that you have to start a piece about Fight Club by referencing the “first rule of Fight Club” line. After 15 years, it’s more of an impulse than a cliche, like in the way that boys have an impulse for violence that’s not a stereotype. Anyway, it’s time yet again to talk about Fight Club because one and a half decades gone by calls for another anniversary celebration of David Fincher’s modern classic. And just as I like to do with all modern classics, I’m commemorating this occasion by recommending relevant older classics (and some not-so-classics) that preceded it.
Fight Club is another movie from the 1990s that has been highly influential on what has come after and was highly influenced by what had come before. Unlike Pulp Fiction and others, though, Fincher’s movie doesn’t wear its allusions so obviously. There are some direct references (Valley of the Dolls for one), but most of those are to titles that aren’t significant in terms of the ingredients that make up the big picture. This week’s recommendations aren’t all known inspirations for either Chuck Palahniuk’s novel or Jim Uhls’s script or Fincher’s direction. A few are, while others are just important movies with similar plots or themes, and as usual there are another few involving members of the cast in earlier roles.
After you honor the anniversary by watching Fight Club for the thousandth time this week, follow it with any of the following dozen titles you haven’t already seen before. A note before you read ahead: this post obviously features SPOILERS for the 15-year-old movie, for a twist that is pretty much common knowledge, but it also spoils the endings of a few old movies that are also way past the time limit on protection.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Robert Wiene’s silent masterpiece of German Expressionism is considered the original surprise twist movie. That may be true, but regardless it’s also got a surprise twist that is fairly similar to the one in Fight Club. An unreliable narrator tells the story of an evil doctor and his murderous puppet, a somnambulist directed to kill via hypnosis. But this story and its versions of certain characters are all apparently in the narrator, Francis’s, head. It’s a bit more aligned with The Usual Suspects, to be sure. The darkness of Fight Club, mostly set at night or shot in shadowy exteriors, is also a descendent Caligari’s look.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Many movies have been adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” including a few lost works from the early 20th century. Others that came before this include the great 1920 silent version with John Barrymore and another loosely based adaptation from F.W. Murnau, which is unfortunately also lost. This first talking picture of the story is probably the best, however, or at least the most notable for its performance by Fredric March as the split-personality horror icon and for its groundbreaking special effects, the technique of which remained a secret for many years afterward.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)
Fincher has acknowledged that the scene with The Narrator in the cave with the penguin was inspired by this adaptation of James Thurber’s novel. It was one of his favorite movies when he was a kid. Although the scene also appears in the novel, for Fincher it’s included in the movie to set the audience up for the surreality of the story. The penguin tells The Narrator to “slide,” or let go. Like Walter Mitty, he needs to escape his humdrum office-space life. Mitty goes off on an adventure, while The Narrator starts his fight clubs – both are triggered by a mysterious woman.
The Three Faces of Eve (1957)
Even though split personalities were found in movies for decades, many of them in “Jekyll” adaptations, this was really the first mainstream feature to tackle the reality of dissociative identity disorder. Based on a true story, The Three Faces of Eve stars Joanne Woodward as a housewife with two additional personalities, one of which is the wild side version of Eve, sort of like her own Tyler Durden. Of course, she has one more identity than Fight Club’s Narrator has – unless, that is, you’re one of those who believe Marla is also in his head (although that doesn’t necessarily mean he acts as her). Another work based on a true DID case worth checking out is the made-for-TV miniseries Sybil, which co-stars Woodward as a doctor treating Sally Field’s title character, who has many personalities.
Whereas back in Caligari’s day critics were spoiling the twist in their reviews, for this innovative Alfred Hitchcock feature, the concept of going in cold was intently established. More than 50 years later, however, everybody knows about the protagonist being killed early on and also about how Norma Bates is not alive, her voice and murderous actions all in fact those of delusional son Norman. Because she was once a real person, she’s not quite the Tyler Durden of her time, but she’s close.
There are regular citations of this Ingmar Bergman film as having received an homage in Fight Club. The scene where Durden splices a frame of pornography subliminally into a family feature does sort of recall Persona’s bit where an erect penis flashes on screen ahead of a brief clip of animation during a projector/projection montage at the beginning. There’s more, though, in how Fight Club and Persona both have other reflexive tricks that remind us we’re watching a movie. Also the Bergman, like the Fincher, is about two characters who merge by the end. Persona’s two characters aren’t the same person, at least not narratively, but there is a level of parallel there with the reveal in Fight Club.
The Graduate (1967)
Fincher has talked a lot in interviews of this film’s influence on the book and movie, how to him this seemed like the equivalent coming-of-age story for a new generation, a group that’s slower to find themselves, in their 30s rather than 20s. He also has called it “the ’90s inverse” of Mike Nichols’s seminal feature, because it’s about a guy with no possibilities as opposed to Dustin Hoffman’s character having many. There was even a desire by Fight Club producer Laura Ziskin for Buck Henry to adapt Palahniuk’s book since he’d written the screenplay for The Graduate. Edward Norton, who plays The Narrator, has also spoken of how he saw Fight Club as Generation X’s The Graduate (and their Rebel Without a Cause) and has discussed more parallels, too.“It’s the story of youthful dislocation and of the feeling of entering the adult world and feeling out of sync with the value system that you’re expected to engage in,” he says on the DVD commentary, “and trying to figure out the answer to the question of how to be happy.” In an interview with Reel.com, he added of his character, “like at the end of The Graduate, he’s accomplished something. You don’t know what he’s accomplished exactly, but you get the sense that he’s reached some kind of middle ground between his old self and this side of himself that he’s been battling.”
The Other (1972)
Not to be confused with another film by Robert Wiene from 1930 (which with its double-life plot may also be relevant), this adaptation of Thomas Tryon’s 1971 novel is directed by Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) and has a plot twist that is somewhere between that of Psycho and that of Fight Club. Here it’s young twin brothers, one of whom is good and the other a murderer and kidnapper. But of course it turns out that the bad one had actually died months earlier and it’s just the former, surviving twin who is doing everything and blaming it on his sibling.
American Graffiti (1973)
Another landmark for a generation, this teen movie from George Lucas is not included here for that reason alone (otherwise I might have instead gone with Rebel Without a Cause). Fincher has noted that American Graffiti, one of his favorite movies of all time, was an influence on the look of Fight Club. He told Film Comment that he and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth discussed Haskell Wexler’s work on that movie “and how that looked, how the nighttime exteriors have this sort of mundane look, but it still has a lot of different colors but they all seem very true, they don’t seem hyperstylized.” Interestingly, Fincher was apparently present for some of the shooting of American Graffiti as a kid and went on to work for Lucas on Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
This teen movie from John Hughes has the odd honor of having been influenced by Fight Club, in a way, despite coming out 13 years earlier. In retrospect, fans have theorized that the characters of Ferris Bueller and Cameron Frye are just one person, that Cameron is sort of Ferris’s Tyler Durden. Whether or not you want to accept that, you can at least buy into the similar way Ferris Bueller involves a protagonist who breaks the fourth wall for direct address to the camera/audience and the fact that this is another movie about someone choosing to “slide,” or escape from the humdrum of the everyday.
Primal Fear (1996)
Supposedly it was Norton’s performance in The People vs. Larry Flynt, which came out later in the same year, that made Fincher want to cast him as The Narrator. But Norton’s breakout role in this movie has a secret regarding his personality, not all that different from the one his character has in Fight Club. Is it okay to spoil this one yet? I’d known it before seeing it, and I didn’t mind. I guess you just make a presumption based on the connection I’ve made.
Twelfth Night or What You Will (1996)
Again, this is not the movie that inspired Fincher’s casting decision – he is said to have wanted Helena Bonham Carter because of The Wings of a Dove, which came out the following year – yet it’s a much more interesting choice in relation to Fight Club. William Shakespeare was a master of character duality, and in this comedy originally written around 1602 there’s much of his token mistaken identity and disguised identity stuff to be found. In Trevor Nunn’s adaptation, Bonham Carter plays Olivia, who like her character in Fight Club becomes romantically involved with a guy who doesn’t really exist. Here he’s Cesario, actually Viola pretending to be a man. So she’s really, superficially at least, in love with Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian.
Bonus: Never Been Kissed (1999)
If you have the DVD of Fight Club where you first see a menu for the Never Been Kissed DVD, you have to be curious and see that movie at some point. It doesn’t really have any connection to Fight Club, though, other than the fact that Norton is friends with its star, Drew Barrymore.