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The Movie Tourist is a series where we visit unique locations in famous films, to dig a little deeper and uncover the greatest places in movie history.
A man’s home might very much be his castle, but for John Doe, the unnamed killer in “Se7en” it’s also a sanctuary and chapel to his perverted belief that society can be cleansed through a series of intricately planned murders based around the seven deadly sins. Yes this might be far from the most glamorous locations, but its many numerous details ensure that it can never be fully deciphered by just one visit.
Taking place in an unnamed city where it seems to be permanently raining – almost as if attempting to wash away its sins – it’s here which David Fincher chooses to follow up the divisive (and arguably underrated) Alien 3, which split critics as much it did the fan base. As such, many would view Se7en as his true debut. Crafting a city being consumed by its own moral corruption and leaving it like a festering wound, here a few good cops, for some reason, feel it is still worth fighting for, including the world-weary Det. Sommerset (Morgan Freeman) and his eager yet hot-headed replacement Det. Mills (Brad Pitt). However, much like Alien 3, Se7en would also be plagued by studio interference attempting to lighten the tone, though thankfully Fincher had more star power on his side, with Pitt himself threatening to walk away when they began making demands to show what was in ‘the box’ during the film’s now legendary finale.
Seemingly set in New York, no doubt due to screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker’s pitch black vision being born out of an unhappy two years he spent in New York where he tried making it as a screenwriter while working at Tower Records, he drew inspiration from what he saw on his workday commutes. The film was actually shot in downtown Los Angeles with John Doe’s apartment being located at the Alexandria Hotel on 218 West Fifth Street at the southwest corner of the South Spring Street. The building dates back to 1906 where it was originally opened as a luxury hotel and which, in its heyday, was considered to be one of the great luxury hotels of Los Angeles, counting the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, WC Fields and Rudolph Valentino amongst its guests. By the early 70s though, despite being declared a historic-cultural landmark, the former heart of Los Angeles had moved along with the downtown business district, leaving the hotel turned into a low income SRO hotel (Single Room Occupancy) while becoming notorious with drug crime, which was the current state of the hotel when Fincher shot there in 1995, the hotel only being revived along with the surrounding area from 2005.
Over the years, it’s has been a favourite shooting location with Dreamgirls, Domino and Spider-Man 3 all using the hotel, along with numerous music videos, commercials and fashion shoots. Considering Fincher’s background in music videos, it’s hardly surprisingly that he would know about the location and arguably would be the one who used it best. The actual apartment appears around the halfway point in the film, and interestingly enough, it’s not big action detective work or obvious clues that lead Detective Mills and Sommerset to the apartment but rather the legally questionable pull of library records to see who has been checking out library books on the subject of the seven deadly sins. Certainly, this has to be a first for a crime drama. What would someone make of your library habits or even worse, your video rental habits? Maybe might want to think about how many times you’ve watched Navy Seals.
Back to the movie, before we even get into the apartment, it’s confirmed as being the right place by Doe himself, leading Mills on an exciting chase sequence through the stairways and hallways of the hotel. And it would be during the filming of this exciting chase scene where Brad Pitt would accidently put his arm through a car windshield during shooting, requiring him to have surgery and wear a cast. Undaunted, Fincher simply added the injury of his lead actor’s hand right into the script and through the film after, we see Mills in a cast. Once again, back to the movie, of course when cops do get into the apartment, we soon discover why Doe was so keen to stop the detectives from entering.
Se7en is much like Fincher’s other films, driven by its visual style. Certainly, it’s far from short on memorable locations, the majority of which play host to the grotesque murders that Doe orchestrates. These range from the grime-covered residence of the gluttony victim to the apartment of the zombie-like sloth victim whose ceiling is lined with Little Tree air fresheners to mask the smell of the slowly decomposing resident / victim. However, what makes John Doe’s apartment stand out is all in the details. Production designer Arthur Max, in his debut – who would later team up with Fincher again for Panic Room – the John Doe apartment remains unquestionably one of his most memorable creations, which really serves to embody the psyche of its occupant from the moment that Mills, fully enraged, kicks open the door, the four locks within proving little match for the infuriated detective. Seeing so many locks on the door, one wonders if such security measures are in place to keep people out … or to keep something much worse in.
The interior is completely devoid of any light thanks to the covered windows but considering how grim the outside world is that’s hardly surprising. Instead the only light we get is that emitted by the dim fixtures scattered throughout the apartment and the bright red neon cross which hangs at the head of his bed. This lack of light however adds to the scene, especially when the initial investigation is seen through the flashlights of the detectives slowly revealing the apartment’s many secrets, many which hide within the walls. Of course it’s hard to really view this as being a home, as outside of the single bed there are no real signs of a person living here, especially when every inch of the place has been seemingly dedicated equally to John Doe’s obsession with the murders he’s planned. It’s a sanctum for his own madness, which he documents in hand stitched notebooks. Instead what we have here can be viewed as his mindset and worldview broken down into what could almost be seen as a grotesque museum, which Mills and Sommerset are forced to dig through in order to try and find any kind of clue or lead to know where Doe will strike next. Let alone how to capture him. It’s during this terrific scene though that we learn that the detectives had already encountered Doe when they mistook him for a paparazzi earlier while at one of the crime scenes, the photos he took of Mills in particular being found developing in the bathroom, which has been turned into a makeshift darkroom.
Considering the walls are painted black and covered with grease, along with various small crucifixes and other assorted Catholic iconography. It’s hard to see this as anything other than a twisted monk’s chamber as further reinforced by the prison-style cot he sleeps on. There are no family pictures or anything that doesn’t relate to the murders in some way. Doe however, should not be considered as numb to any kind of emotion though, other than the rage he feels for the world around him, especially when he clearly takes great delight in taunting the police by phoning the apartment while police are there trying to unravel its many mysteries.
When it comes to the murders, it’s clear from the evidence on display that Doe is unquestionably fully aware of what he is doing, displaying morbid trophies from his completed murders. These include a display of tomato sauce cans from the gluttony murder, the blood splattered law books from the greed kill or the severed hand of sloth victim Victor, each being given its own display case, further highlighting the pride he has in his work. The tool kit found in the apartment with its many blades, chisels and other implements also highlights the level of preparation that Doe has put into his murders as this isn’t a spontaneous act but instead the culmination of years of obsession and planning. The extent of this obsession is further highlighted in the prequel comics by Mike Kalvoda, charting the early life of Doe from a God-fearing child raised by a religious fanatic mother, as well as a victim of a botched attempt at electroshock therapy to cure his excruciating cluster headaches. Judging by the aspirin bottles in the apartment, they are still a present ailment. The comics take us up to the start of his plans for the murders, along the way detailing the numerous failed attempts to connect to the rest of humanity, including a failed marriage. It all only serves to cement his askew world view.
Unquestionably though, one of the most memorable aspects of the apartment come from the bookcase, which is stacked with Doe’s notebooks. They contain page after page of his thoughts and psychotic ramblings whose content we get to see snippets of during the opening sequence as well as from the journal style entry that Somerset reads to Mills. Of course every notebook on the shelf was filled, designed by Clive Piercy and John Sabel with Sabel handwriting the books using notes from the production team to create their content. However, the constant demands from the production team lead the duo to include a genuine tear-stained suicide letter, which appears briefly during the opening title sequence. The making-of featurette shows these books in a lot more detail, including the letter and especially the crime scene and medical textbook photos we see in the opening frames. Bizarrely, despite the extensive work that Piercy and Sabel put into the books, they never received credit for their work, which was corrected in some small way by their inclusion in the making-of featurette.
During the finale, John Doe brags that, “What I’ve done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed … Forever.” And considering the influence of the film and its startling ending that for more than two decades has entertained audiences, it’s hard to argue with him. Much like all of his handiwork, the apartment still holds the same fascination that it did on that original watch, only rewarding each return visit with a new detail or element missed from a previous visit, and while far from the nicest of movie destinations to visit, when it comes to serial killer lairs this one has yet to be bettered.