The City of Absurdity   The City of Absurdity
Papers & Essayes – More Deeply Lost: Lost Highway and the Tradition of Alienation in Film Noir

An examination of the contemporary noir phenomenon and its wider cultural significance

by Simon McKenzie, October, 2003


“A 21st century noir…”
-(David Lynch, cited in Lynch & Gifford c1995, p1)

Lost Highway (1997) has many essential ingredients that help categorize it as a film noir according to a range of competing definitions and checklists. There is at least one femme fatale, an ambitious woman who is punished for her transgressions of boundaries of female behaviour as defended by the status quo. There is an investigative narrative. There is a distinct visual style and mise en scene that harks back to the 1940s versions of noir with their roots in German Expressionist filmmaking. There is a flawed male hero who is led to his doom, in part due to his association with a femme fatale. In its analysis of Lost Highway, this discussion straightaway points to director David Lynch's quote that kicks of the screenplay and uses this as a bridge over the mire of scholarship that hovers around definitions or film noir. Instead, it goes straight to asking a more interesting question: what is Lost Highway about?

Once the answer to this is struggled with and attempted, a wider significance and broader cultural significance carried by the film emerges. Lost Highway is an extremely complicated non-linear narrative that deals with an identity crisis. Well, that is one level of meaning. David Lynch mines film noir cliches and definitive conventions of the genre and uses them as shorthand to provide us with a means of approaching the disorienting complexity of the film's structure. By analysing the film and drawing comparisons with classic film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s, we can draw upon past experience and scholarship to help uncover another level of operation. Lost Highway can be read on another level as representative of a male fantasy as it operates throughout the canons of art and literature, refracting and concretizing his fears of emasculation and loss of power within a patriarchal society. If this is not abstract enough, after exploring these two levels of meaning, the discussion will examine a third level of meaning. Namely, that the film represents the continuing regenerative nature of film noir itself and can help us to understand the phenomenon that is contemporary noir. That is, how can such a thing as “a 21st century noir' exist and why does it continue to be reborn?


So, what is the film about? Lost Highway (1997) is a confusing enigma of a film with an elliptical plot structure. The film begins at the end and ends at the beginning. We hurtle along a highway in darkness; headlights illuminate the road ahead, bisected by yellow lines. We meet Fred (Bill Pullman) in claustrophobic close up, shot in black and red versus black and white. He smokes a cigarette and we know that this is his story. There is nothing else in shot, just Fred's head. Herzogenrath (1999) uses Lacanian psychoanalysis to give meaning to the film, arguing that we are about to witness the rise of Fred's subconscious.

Fred answers his door buzzer; he presses “Listen” on the intercom and is told “Dick Laurent is dead”. We then gather that there are problems at home, Fred's wife Rene (Patricia Arquette) wants to stay home and read rather than watch her musician husband play at the club. Renee's seductively shot appearance immediately conjures memories of femme fatale Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer) as she first appears from the shadows in Out Of The Past (1947) or Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) poised near the piano in The Killers (1946), either reference can only mean trouble. Later, Fred rings home from the club and gets no answer. Returning home, Fred finds Rene in bed, wakes her then tries to make love to her. Post-attempt, he tells her of a disturbing dream where she was replaced in their bed with an impostor that looked like her. Here we are treated to a terrible shot from Fred's point of view of a scary face in place of Renee's when she asks what is disturbing his sleep. Lynch inserts Fred's subconscious to the mise en scene and thereby alerts us to the blurring of the line between this and conventional narrative. We will soon be expected to join the dots as the narrative flips over to an internal psychological logic. The plot then thickens; mysterious videotapes showing the exterior of their house, then the interior are hand-delivered to their doorstep. We watch the slow rise of Fred's paranoia within what Herzogenrath describes as “a marital scenario of uncertainty, anxiety and unspoken suspicion” (Herzogenrath, 1999, p 7). The house in which Renee and Fred interact is without character, sufficient light or even the conventional acoustics the cinemagoer is accustomed to. This sparse soundtrack and sparse mise en scene co-operate to build a sense of unease and foreboding, working in a symbolic way similar to that described by James Ellroy in The Big Nowhere when referring to the piece of music that gives the book its title:

“He was working on a long solo piece filled with eerie silences to signify lies and duplicities.”
-(Ellroy, 1994)

This eerieness in the cinema plays on the medium's subjective nature and places demands upon the cinemagoer to fill silences and darkness with their own imagination, bringing their own take on anxiety into the mix of experience. The final tape sequences show Fred and Renee asleep in their bed, then Fred over his murdered wife. The police are called in to investigate. The policemen Ed and Al look as if they have stepped off the set of a 1940s crime film. They ask if Fred has a video camera and are told that he hates the things and prefers things as he remembers things, not as they were. If things are merely weird now, they are about to get weirder. At a party, Fred talks to a man referred to in the credits as The Mystery Man (Robert Blake) who says they have met before at Fred's house. He tells Fred that he is at Fred's house now and proves it by getting Fred to ring him there. The party's host doesn't know who the man is, only that he is a friend of Dick Laurent. An increasingly freaked out Fred leaves with Renee to check out the house. Things do not go well. Fred soon finds himself sentenced to death for the murder of Renee.

The story then jumps that of young Pete (Balthazar Getty), a mechanic who it seems has switched places with Fred in the cell. Has Fred turned into someone else? Or is this Fred as he now sees himself because he has gone insane? Barry Gifford (1997a) provides a clue in an interview in Rolling Stone:

"Let's say you don't want to be yourself anymore. Something happens to you, and you just show up in Seattle, living under the name Joe Smith, with a whole different reality. It means that you're trying to escape something, and that's basically what Fred Madison does. He gets into a fugue state, which in this case means that he can't go anywhere - he's in a prison cell, so it's happening internally, within his own mind. But things don't work out any better in the fugue state than they do in real life. He can't control the woman any more than he could in real life. You might say this is an explanation for what happens. However, this is not a complete explanation for the film. Things happen in this film that are not - and should not be - easily explained."
– (Gifford B 1997a in Rolling Stone, March 6, 1997)

We follow the days after his release from custody, as Pete returns home to his parents' he catches up with his old friends and girlfriend before trouble catches up with him again. This comes in the form of seriously scary Mr. Eddie (Robert Loggia), some sort of moneyed crim with cars and goons to spare. Pete is soon ensnared in a robbery plot by Mr. Eddie's moll, the highly stylised and erotically depicted second femme fatale, Alice (again played by Patricia Arquette). We learn that Arquette's double role is no mere budgetary concern, at times she recites pieces of her biography, which have already been said by Renee to Fred.

Ed (Lou Eppolito) and Al (John Roselius) stake out Pete's workplace (a service station) and identify Mr. Eddie as Dick Laurent. Again, this is a reference to The Killers (1946), where the two city toughs lurk around Pete Lunn's service station. In both films an “Al” is waiting around for a Pete who is not really a Pete. In Out Of The Past (1947), Jeff has also run from his life to a service station. There is much to be said about the metaphor of the road and the development of America, the symbolism of service stations and what the role of mechanic says about taking control of the journey along the highway but this would take me away from the scope of this essay. Perhaps analysis of Lost Highway in terms of the genre of the road movie would be a more suitable forum. David Lynch is wont to cram many genres into one film. (Pearson, 1997, p18). The important point here to note is the intertextuality and self-conscious citation occurring with overt nods to echoes of the past that this film reveals. Indeed, Lost Highway starts off with a shot of the road being sucked underneath the eye of the camera just as The Killers (1946) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955) do. Lynch places the police in Lost Highway as symbolic of Fred's conscious logic, still present but totally subservient to the subconscious world that has taken over. We are alerted to this by them being present during the scene whereby Fred states his preference for his own mind's eye versus video cameras. Parallel and interrelated universes are on display here. Is Fred in fact Pete? Is Renee in fact Alice? The most fruitful approach to understanding unfolding events is to read them as a visually literal unfolding of a psychogenic fugue, as Gifford has suggested. This condition is closely related to a multiple personality disorder and sees the creation of multiple identities and fantasy in order to cope with trauma (possibly his murder of his wife?). What is happening to Fred seems closely related to the psychological dynamics Freud (cited by Cowie 1993, p123) describes in the behaviour and suffering of both psychotics and neurotics:

“whereas the new, imaginary external world of psychosis attempts to put itself in the place of external reality that of neurosis, on the contrary, is apt, like the play of children, to attach itself to a piece of reality – a different piece from the one against which it has to defend itself”
-(Freud S, cited in Cowie 1993, p 123)

The universe of Lost Highway can be seen to exist as a space whereby this psychosis and neurosis (both are present) play themselves out. Herzogenrath points to Lacan as a further tool for understanding. At least two models of Lacan's are at play in the universe of Lost Highway. One of these models relates to the entanglement of the human in three registers the imaginary, the real and the symbolic. In creating more realities in the onset of his fugue, Fred must pass through developmental stages of forming an identity again. Pete can be viewed as a grown up, idealized “Other” like that encountered in the mirror stage where an infant starts to form symbolic relationships with the unknowable real. The other model important in the film is Lacan's use of the moebius strip as a way to illustrate his conceptualization of the return of the repressed. This geometric form can be described as a two sided strip (say of paper) that is given one half twist along its length and then sutured together to create a loop which appears to be two sided on first examination but proves to now only have one (Herzogenrath, 1997 pp5-6). If Fred has repressed the murder of his wife, and gone into a fugue state creating alternate realities, he is doomed to circle around on a moebius strip of illusory reality. Thus, we as audience members may conceptualize this film as one where the script in written on two sides of strip of paper that has been constructed into a moebius strip. The camera's eye navigates both sides, as it knows that there really is only one side. The repressed will return to haunt Fred in a number of ways (like videotape of the murder being dropped off on his doorstep, to give an example). The moebius strip will return later in the discussion. But back to the plot.

In the tradition of the film noirs of old, Alice's sexual allure takes a hold on Pete as things get out of hand and he kills the man they were meant to rob. There are echoes of Double Indemnity (1944) and the growing feeling in Walter Neff that he is trapped with Phyllis Dietrichson on a “trolley car ride “ (Double Indemnity 1944) to the end of the line. The ties that bind Pete to Alice are more than just physical attraction; there is again the sense of symbiosis that was evoked through the dreamlike co-existence of Fred and Renee in their house. During the scenes in which Pete commits murder, pornographic black and white footage of Alice is projected onto a screen above the action. Pete follows Alice toward a showdown in the desert with the nameless man from the party and Mr. Eddie. By the time scores are settled, Mr. Eddie/Dick Laurent is dead, the nameless man has disappeared along with Alice and the loot, but not before Alice lets him know that he will never have her. Fred (Bill Pullman) has now re-materialised to takes over Pete's place on screen. We follow Fred as he races back to town, drops by his own house and lets himself know through the intercom that “Dick Laurent is dead”. The final scene sees him hurtling along the dark highway that opened the film.

So what is going on? Some further words from David Lynch himself:

"It doesn't do any good to say, 'This is what it means.' When you are spoon fed a film, people instantly know what it is. I like films that leave room to dream."
– (Lynch 1997, in Cinefantastique, April 1997)

"Barry may have his idea of what the film means, and I may have my idea, and they may be two different things. The beauty of an abstract film is it's open to interpretation."
– Lynch in Cinefantastique, April 1997

Lost Highway is an incredibly complex film that lends itself to what might be an
endless variety of readings. As with any example of film noir, much depends upon the perspective. Feminist frameworks, Marxist, Postmodern, the list goes on, all can serve as useful analytic tools when searching for meaning in this film. The plot synopsis so far has touched upon a Lacanian psychoanalytic framework as propounded by Herzogenrath (1999, pp1-18). There is also the old stalwart Freud informing reading (Cowie, 1993, p123). However, as I now change focus to a broader level of meaning it is fitting to say something about my own perspective. Rather than just choosing one perspective that might limit the discussion, I choose to continue by focusing on a search for a wider meaning in this film, drawing upon frameworks as, and if, required. What might this film mean in wider contexts, culturally, politically and in terms of the nature of film noir as a movement (or genre)? What elements can be identified that may explain the endurance of film noir as a way of telling stories, and hence the re-generative, mutative phenomena of neo-noir, tech-noir, post-noir and any other variations that there may be in the offing? To this end, I will draw sharper focus upon two definitively noir features of Lost Highway that can be traced from classic examples such as Double Indemnity (1944), The Killers (1946) and Out Of The Past (1947), through the 1950s as in Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and on to Lost Highway (1997). The development and increasingly self-conscious treatment of these features as the years go by will be observed.


In the classic period of film noir, accepted here as starting with the onset of World War II and ending in 1955 with Kiss Me Deadly, there arose the femme fatale. Janey Place argues that the archetypal of dark lady or spider woman than spells men's doom “is among the oldest themes in art, literature, mythology and religion” (Place 1998, p47). This is because most of our art is male fantasy and women are defined in a phallocentric way by their sexuality, film noir is no different (Place 1998, p47). World War II posed a significant threat to patriarchy, with women entering the workforce, freely functioning in the community and giving femininity expression on a scale unheard of before the war. To the male giving vent to his fantasy, anxiety over this threat was concretized into highly sexual images of beautiful women who often toted guns or enjoyed dominance in frame and freedom of movement. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity (1944) wants to escape her stultifying marriage and take the money and run, and uses her sexuality to entrap Walter Neff in a murder plot. Her ambition for independence in the hands of the writer of the fantasy is painted as evil, thus painting the ambition for independence as an unacceptable crossing of limits of femininity. This ambitious woman is also revealed to be duplicitous, her scheming past is revealed and she double crosses Neff before he gets the chance to do it to her and get out of the mess. This transgression must be punished, not only to resolve the threat to patriarchy but also to satisfy the production code, which called for criminals to be brought to justice. We can see the production code in this era as a metaphor for the status quo in gender politics. In Out Of The Past (1947), Kathie Moffett guns down her lover and makes off across the border the loot. Again, her ambition toward independence is depicted as violent betrayal and she is tracked down, leading Jeff (Robert Mitchum) to betray his client and bring doom upon himself in order to keep her rampant sexuality for himself for a while. She is shown to be duplicitous, having lied even to Jeff about stealing the money. The writers and the production code step in again and kill off both of them. The Killers (1946) sees a similar theme in Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) wants to make off with Ole Anderson (Burt Lancaster) and the loot gotten from double-crossing her lover. She is revealed as duplicitous and betrays Ole. Both are punished, Ole by execution, Kitty by the long arm of the law.

Janey Place (1998, p61-3) also shows how in such films the opposite female archetype to the spider woman is painted as redeemer. She is celibate not sexual, she is flatly lit and conservatively dressed and often (in symbolic overkill) painted against an overtly rural or domestic setting as opposed to the urban mire in which the flawed male hero is entangled. In Out Of The Past (1946) she is Jeff's girlfriend Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) who is abandoned in the country town of the film's opening. In The Killers (1946) she is Lily (Virginia Christine) depicted in the present day investigation as the dutiful wife. Double Indemnity (1944) is atypical in this respect, with the redeemer being cast as a Keyes (Edward G. Robertson). He is male, but nonetheless a devoutly celibate straight shooter who is flatly lit.

If we accept that Lost Highway is film noir, what if anything has changed within this phallocentrically dominated discourse? The answer is not much, but something. We can see that Kiss Me Deadly (1955) represents a shift toward a more self conscious portrayal of misogynistic archetypes culminating in Lost Highway which further pushes the boundaries of narrative conventions. So while film noir may still be an overwhelmingly male domain, projected archetypes are no longer so deeply rooted underneath the conceit of a realistic narrative form.

Caryl Flinn, in her discussion of Kiss Me Deadly cites Shrader as she argues that not only did this film represent a male fantasy refracting fears of annihilation from the Cold War and atomic age, but marked a phase at the end of the classic era where film noir became

“painfully self-aware; they seemed to know that they stood at the end of a long tradition based on despair and disintegration and did not shy away from that fact”
-(Flinn 2000, p1).

This-self awareness applies to Kiss Me Deadly's main femme fatale. She is another Lily (Gaby Rodgers) as in Out Of The Past. She is found at home on a bed with a gun pointed at Mike (Ralph Meeker), she looks and is dressed the same as our memory of Christina (Cloris Leachman). She is revealed to be the sexual plaything of the evil Dr. Soberin, her real name is Gabrielle (an allusion to the actress' real name) and her greed/ambition leads her to destroy the world. Mike's assistant Velda (Maxine Cooper) is Mike's redemption, yet she leads a double life tricking cheating husbands into proving their philandering ways to prop up the detective racquet she and Mike have going and she is overtly sexual in her behaviour towards Mike. All this duplicity and doubt does nothing for feminism, and is more like a defiant avowal of misogyny as justified. A self-conscious male fantasy? It all gets so over the top that we question everything in a post-modern way while we watch the film. Again, a film noir incites alienation and confusion in the audience.

A voice of dissent that I note here is Janey Place (1998, p48) when she suggests that style outweighs substance in film noir and subverts the very archetypes it tries to deal with via the plot. Thus, the images of powerful women linger long after the flimsy reconciliation of patriarchy imposed by the production code or anti-feminism and show film noir to be “the only period in American film in which women are deadly but sexy, exciting and strong” (Place 1998, p63).

The challenge facing directors and critical audiences at this stage, as I see it, is this: how can you follow the self-awareness of Kiss Me Deadly? Surely to take the growing self awareness and push it much further risks turning out a film that is more like glib parody or pastiche versus something that can genuinely claim to film noir. On the other hand, to take a step back from this self awareness is to risk turning out a nostalgic piece that is overly familiar to audiences and hence lives in a world of nostalgic parody.

Leave it to David Lynch to resolve this schism. What Lost Highway does is become more self aware but taking care to complicate the plot, soundtrack and narrative form for the audience so as to replicate the specific alienation that the directors of classic era films noir were able to generate via devices such as flashback and voice-over narration. On the surface we have two femme fatales, Renee and Alice, both played by (Arquette). In real life she is the same person, Arquette. In terms of making sense of the film, they are the same person, Fred Madison's wife and mother surrogate when speaking from a psychoanalytical perspective. According to Fred's internal logic during his fugue, they are spookily similar but different people. According to what we as a literate, erudite audience know about archetypes within the topography of film noir, they are two different phallocentric projections of a crystallization of male anxiety about ambitious women. All versions of Arquette are painted as duplicitous. Fred's patriarchal worldview is threatened by his own various projections of the archetype. Renee want's to read (gain knowledge) and fuels Fred's paranoiac suspicions. She may or may not lead a double life as an adulterous pornographic actor (she wants to earn money and express her sexuality). When Fred as Pete reforms her as Alice, he is betrayed again and told that he can never have her.

I would argue that this shift toward self-aware postmodern treatments of film noir does to a small extent wrest control of the female image back from patriarchy. It does this by making us aware that we are dealing with myth versus holding onto the pretense of describing reality, as was the case in the 1940s. This follows and adds voice to Gledhill's argument that myth should not be discounted offhand in gender discourse because myth is just as much a part of the real world for women as any supposed real femininity (Gledhill C 1998a, pp21-3).


Walter Neff's crimes are narrated into a tape recorder to illuminate the frustrated investigation of his mentor Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) (Double Indemnity 1944). In The Killers, another insurance investigator gets to the bottom of Ole Anderson's killing and recovers stolen loot (The Killers 1946). In Out of The Past, private eye Jeff is recruited to track down Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer) for Whit (Kirk Douglas) whom she has wronged in more ways than one (Out of The Past 1947).

In Kiss Me Deadly, Mike Hammer investigates the circumstances of Christina's murder and pursues “the great whatzit” (Kiss Me Deadly 1955). What is interesting here is this is another example of the film noir becoming more self-conscious as it closes out the classic era. A MacGuffin is a plot device which on the surface ties an investigative narrative together but which may or may not be important in itself. The glowing box in Kiss Me Deadly performs this function, as does missing loot that is never seen and may not exist in Out Of The Past (1947). Whereas Alfred Hitchcock gave lectures about MacGuffins as plot devices, Kiss Me Deadly foregrounds it in the script in Velda's attack on Mike for being too blinded by his greed.

Borde and Chaumeton point out that investigative narratives in themselves are not unique to film noir, 'crime documentaries' abounded during the 1940s but with a difference The element differentiating film noirs as they had started to describe them was in the films' point of view. Suddenly during this period, the point of view was often that of the criminal. We as viewers are placed “within the very criminal milieu”. Audiences that first saw these films were not familiar with this view and were used to police or judges being present to “act or overhear” (Borde & Chaumeton 1955, in Silver & Ursini 1996, pp19-20). Consider the adjustment required in audience members to the authoritative voice of the narrator now being that of the dastardly Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (1944). There is more adjustment required to come to terms with point of view being that of Mike Hammer's whom police take a dim view of in the interview after his 'accident' in Kiss Me Deadly. Films noir of the 1940s and 1950s subverted the orthodoxy of the assumption of the status quo being automatically trustworthy construct. Film noir was subversive to societal conventions when it recognised that a greater loyalty in audiences would be generated by shaking off the cops and taking the point of view of someone trying to work people and events out for themselves, just as the audience of any era must do in their own lives.

Lost Highway sees Frank and Rene's strange deliveries investigated by cliched plain-clothes detectives, Pete's movements are being watched by them too. The law, symbolic of the status quo or patriarchy in the classic genre texts, is now re-cast to symbolise Frank's inner logic, helpless and ineffective as it is subsumed by rise of his subconscious taking over propelling events. Rather than transplanting an insurance investigator or private gumshoe for us to identify with, Lynch lets us identify with the roaming camera's eye and asks us to do the investigating ourselves. Again, narrative conventions and traditions of film noir are subverted to maintain the tradition of creation of a specific alienation. Lynch treads this paradoxical line masterfully.

As a final note on narrative structure, it is useful to consider Barry Gifford's allusion to his Lost Highway as a moebius strip in Film Threat magazine:

"We realized we didn't want to make something that was linear, and that's why the Moebius strip [as the film's structure]. A Moebius strip is a long strip of paper curved initially into a circle, but with one end flipped over. The strip now has only one side that flips both inside and outside the shape. It made it easier to explain things to ourselves and keeping it straightforward. The story folds back underneath itself and continues."
–(Gifford 1997b, interviewed in Film Threat, 1997)

Lynch is erudite enough to know that this kind of structure as inspiration or a formal model is enough to disorient all but the most hardened devotees of Lacanian psychoanalysis. While these extremely complex formulations and models aid attempts at finding meaning they still fall far short of explaining the whole film, a fact I am sure Lynch is gleefully aware of. The more one looks into Lost Highway, the more tempting it is to leave it as cinema for cinema's sake. In so far as these variations in narrative structure acts upon the overall sensation and effect of the film, it is sufficient to say here that they act as a “performative” element in the discourse of the just as the cast and scripted dialogue does (Villella 2000, p1). Film noir has ridden along on the coattails of a cultural shift whereby society is systematically rejecting a merely received version of events toward today's postmodern times where everything is questioned and everything questions, even the text.


What I have tried to explore here is the way in which Lost Highway upholds
many of the traditional elements identified with film noir when viewed as a genre or movement that possesses identifiable traits. I have chosen to use the term “traditions” for good reason. Lost Highway references the past but more importantly, puts a post-modern Lynchian twist on these aspects. This, of itself, follows the tradition of subversion that underlies film noir.

It is my contention that the mere presence of some pre-fabricated list of traits is not enough to count for claims of being a film noir on its own. What needs to underpin this presence is an intention to subvert conventional narrative techniques to create tension in the viewer. Naremore cites an exchange between Andre Bazin and Roger Leenhardt where it is described as film noir's “vocation” to reverse the conventional norms which creates a “specific tension which results from the disruption of order and “the disappearance of psychological bearings or guideposts”” (Naremore, 1995, p19). Borde and Chaumerton show their influence here, having stated in their seminal Panorama du Film Noir Americain that the removal of these psychological reference holds the key to the aim of film noir, again to create “a specific alienation.” (Borde & Chaumerton 1955, p25). This disorder and disorientation is a common theme throughout the four films discussed above. Each traditional element revealed itself to be subversive to conventional norms of narrative, accumulating along with other devices to creating this alienation in the viewer. The subversion described is shown to be part of a long tradition within film noir from Double Indemnity (1944) to Lost Highway (1997) at least. To describe the intent to subvert and disorientate together with the effect is to start to build a portrait of a noir sensibility, if you like. A certain something extra that is not as easy to define or delineate as the composite traits that help to build it, but an important “common denominator nonetheless” (Borde and Chaumerton, 1955, p19).

But to delve even further, what is the root cause of this intent? Why would a filmmaker want to alienate his audience? For purposes of convenience, I will here subscribe to Borde and Chaumerton's convention of conferring credit upon the director as the main creative influence of the film (Borde & Chaumerton 1955, p18). It is argued here and elsewhere that Double Indemnity, Out of The Past and The Killers because of their moment in history, all refract a male anxiety relating to social upheaval and its effect upon the roles of women, and the realignment of other constructs with which they were familiar when forming their symbolic relationship with the real and hence their identities. (Hirsch 1999, pp6-9; Place 1998, pp47-8). Kiss Me Deadly and Lost Highway denote a transition in the way by which these same fears (generated in differing historical moments) are conveyed to an audience toward a more self-conscious and ultimately self aware postmodern treatment (Flinn 2000, p3). This would seem to be the way forward if there are to be more film noirs.

While discussing women's place in film noir, Elizabeth Cowie speaks of desire in the critic for film noir to exist as a genre contributing to the propagation of the term. Cowie also speaks of a desire among “aficionados” to see a certain group of films together as another contributing factor (Cowie, 1993, pp121-122). I would argue that desire (read: cause of intent) is also the key to grasping the endurance of noir as a regenerative genre with manifestations (variously described) popping up long past the armistice of World War II and the thawing of Cold War anxieties. In all of these films, I see a universal desire in the filmmaker to have his audience identify with the characters on screen. This explains the wish to alienate the audience. To more actively engage the audience speaks to the very marrow of the storyteller's art.

The proliferation of this type of film during what Foster Hirsch describes as “rips and tears in the social fabric” (Hirsch, 1999, p4) that are seismic in scale partly explains the amount of film noirs that arose during the Second World War and during the ensuing disillusionment and Cold War paranoia. The equation seems simple enough, the greater the rip or tear, the wider spread and more powerful the desire to produce direct films that engage alienated audiences. Also, there are more stories to tell of unstable identity plays, recalling Kaplan's description of film noir as something that offers the space for the playing out of identity struggles (Kaplan, p.9).

There is also another type of desire at work her, that of the audience. The proliferation of film noir also implies an abundance of demand. So it is relatively safe to hypothesise that the equation works for film noir on the other side of the camera too. That is, the greater the rip or tear, the more the marketplace looks for a product that replicates an unspoken or becoming anxiety and allows to have their fears validated by the auteur and share this with an anonymous slice of the community within which the fear is at work. Writing about the endurance of film noir for USA Today magazine, Christopher Sharrett opines:

“Film noir may represent a time when we genuinely shared something, even if it was profound fear about the future. The darkest aspect of the contemporary noir resurgence may be its suggestion that past emotions are sentimental trinkets to be memorialized [sic] on a pop culture video shelf.”
-(Sharrett 1998, in USA Today Magazine, p3)

To borrow a hoary adage: a trouble shared is a trouble halved. Sharrett argues that “the current versions of noir are too self conscious to transmit he same anxieties of the original noir films” (Sharret 1998, p2). He holds Dark City up as a case in point. I offer Lost Highway as the case for the opposition.

A pause to offer a word on definition, important when considering any contemporary crop of film described as film noir. Defining a film noir is best left as a subjective pursuit lest wrangling for a definition gets in the way of enjoyment of the text. One has to take a stance, for the purposes of this discussion mine is this: films that borrow from the pool of characteristic noir traditions yet fail to subvert narrative contentions enough to create a palpable “specific tension” fall short of living up to any label of film noir that is bestowed upon them. Whether it be an over-enthusiastic critic unable to control the desire that Cowie (1993, p122) speaks of or a cynical exercise in marketing, labelling a film as noir does not make it noir. Dark City (1998), to my mind, shares the fate of Pulp Fiction (1994) in that it possesses traits associated with identification as film noir but lacks a film noir “sensibility”. Where this lack is seen, all the femme fatales, chiaroscuro lighting effects, flawed heroes or whatever else a director would like to throw at it will not produce a film noir, but merely a well informed pastiche. For example: Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction falls into this latter category rather than being film noir. If Sharrett (1998, p4) receives the suggestion from a film that emotions or the desire to share a sense of alienation are a museum piece then I would suggest he is not watching the real thing. The easiest litmus test is a personal one, a filmgoer's reaction cuts though any red tape wrapped around definition. I did not feel the “specific tension” watching Pulp Fiction or Dark City that I have come to know through experiencing films such as those analysed earlier. It is like trying to define “Lynchian” (characteristic of David Lynch), on this I will leave the last word to David Foster Wallace:

“But like post-modern and pornographic, Lynchian is one of those words that's ultimately definable only ostensibly – i.e. we know it when we see it. Ted Bundy wasn't particularly Lynchian, but Jeffrey Dahmer, with his victims' various anatomies neatly separated and stored in his fridge alongside his chocolate milk, was thoroughly Lynchian.”
-(David Foster Wallace, in Premiere magazine, cited by Pearson 1997, p8)

I am now placed to read a wider context into Lost Highway in terms of what it might mean culturally and in terms of aiding understanding film noir as it appears long past the end of the Cold War. Lost Highway signals the arrival of a film so complex, post-modern, self-conscious and self-aware in its approach to creating film noir sensibility that it serves, of itself, as a shining example of contemporary noir. It is of its historical moment, not just casting a gaze back at history. It refracts the 1990s version of the male castration anxiety. We are still dealing with Freud and Lacan as in Double Indemnity but why wouldn't we be? This is shown to be an eternally repeated pattern. Into the mix, there is the wider malaise represented permeating crackle, hiss, snow and fuzz of technology: buzzers, videotape, video cameras, alarm systems, horns, guns. All this paraphernalia that is almost invisible to the modern consumer props up our ideals of successful white male identity. Malfunction and distrust as exhibited by Fred refracts 1990s phobias about the Millennium, The End Of The World As We Know It, which threatened to come along and make everybody start all over again. As said before, the number of readings this complex film allows are boundless.

But what of film noir in its contemporary form? It is within this discourse that Lost Highway has greatest bearing in my view. Lost Highway is a modern example of the ongoing tradition of subversion of reference points in a long line of films noir. Environmental factors such as war or ruptures in political structures such as those that originally led to the emergence of film noir as the cinematic language of subversion in the 1940s are bound to recur. It may not be to such a scale, but as long as there is a struggle for control of the space in which identity is constructed, film noir will offer itself again and again as a shorthand language to explore identity crises and disequilibrium. In Lynch's view, everyday sees construction, re-construction and realigment of identity across a base of dubious symbols and referents. It does not take much of a tear for a story to appear when this fragility is your focus, as is Lynch's across much of his work. (Pearson 1997, pp1-4). As proposed earlier, Lynch's work refracts a society where more is questioned and where the line of questioning comes from all around, even the text. In short, today's postmodern era. The main difference between Lost Highway and Double Indemnity, Out of The Past, The Killers is not due to any lack in noir sensibility, nor a lack of desire on behalf of the film-maker to create this sensibility but in the lack of desire in the audience. I am here talking of popularity of 1940s noir versus the relative obscurity those rare examples of a true film noir sensibility remain locked in now. A personal rip in the fabric of identity does not generate a widespread yearning to share what Sharrett refers to as a desire to share in fears for the future (Sharrett, 1998, p4). Pre-millennium angst did not disrupt all segments of the community, World War II did. Add to this the fact that the film-going public also has greater choice, and if ticket sales for Pulp Fiction (1994) are anything to go by, they prefer to spend their dollars on fare that speaks to their post modern malaise not by reminding them of their alienation but glossing over it and enjoying the surprises it may bring.


The implications for understanding contemporary noir in this light become clear, contemporary noir is something that each of us has to experience and count or discount personally. One person's noir may be another's pastiche, homage, parody or mimic. But if we move past definitions and all the talk of “Is it?” or “Is it not?”, its enduring nature as a genre or term can be understood when focusing on those factors that promote it's use. It carries a long tradition of subversion. It plays to the desire of the film-maker to have his or her audience identify with characters or settings that are permeated by angst and identity crisis. It becomes more in demand when large rips and tears in the social fabric appear. It has a shorthand, recognisable nature and identifying traits that can be easily and cheaply produced.

So as long as identity, societal institutions and political power struggles remain as constructed entities it will rip and tear. Disequilibrium will again and again create the conditions in which noir will grow from its roots in the past to mutate into something that feeds and feeds off noir sensibility and desire for it in the community. When we view film noir as a phenomenon we observe a type of symbiosis. This is why noir transforms, shifts, shimmers and reappears- it is fluid and organic in nature, and lays its roots among shifting ambiguities. As anybody who has ever looked further than the headlines into human history would attest, these ambiguities are in constant supply.

© Simon McKenzie 2003


Borde R & Chaumeton E 1955, 'Towards a definition of film noir', trans. A. Silver in Silver A & Ursini J (eds), 1996, Film noir reader, Limelight Editions, New York.

Capp R 2000, 'B-girls, dykes and doubles: Kiss Me Deadly and the legacy of “late noir”', in Latrobe University, Melbourne, Screening The Past, web site, viewed 05 September 2003,

Cowie E 1993, 'Film Noir and Women', in Copjek, J., (ed), Shades of Noir: a reader, Verso, London.

Dark City 1998, motion picture, directed by Alex Proyas, Warner Home Video, Los Angeles

Dirks T c2002a, 'Double Indemnity', in Greatest Films, web site, viewed 03 September 2003,

----, c2002b, 'Out Of The Past', in Greatest Films, website, viewed 03 September, 2003,

----, c2002b, 'Kiss Me Deadly', in Greatest Films, website, viewed 03 September, 2003,

Double Indemnity 1944, motion picture, directed by Billy Wilder, Paramount, Los Angeles.

Ellroy J 1994, The Big Nowhere, Arrow Edition, Random House, London.

Flinn C 2000, 'Sound, woman and the bomb: dismembering the “great whatsit” in Kiss Me Deadly', in Screening The Past, web site, viewed 08 September 2003,

Gifford B 1997a, Interview, Rolling Stone (March 6, 1997) cited in Lynchnet, web site, viewed 15 August 2003,

---- 1997b, Interview, Film Threat (1997) cited in Lynchnet, web site, viewed 15 August 2003,

Gifford B & Lynch D c1995, Lost Highway – The Screenplay, in Lynchnet, web site, viewed 15 August 2003,

Gledhill C 1998a, 'Klute 1. A Contemporary Film Noir and Feminist Criticism', in Kaplan, E. Ann (ed.), Women In Film Noir, 2nd Edition, BFI Publishing, London.

---- 1998b, ”Klute 2: Feminism and Klute”, in Kaplan, E. Ann (ed.), Women In Film Noir, 2nd Edition, BFI Publishing, London.

Herzogenrath B 1999, “On the Lost Highway: Lynch and Lacan, Cinema and Cultural Pathology”, in Other Voices the (e)journal of Cultural Criticism, v.1, n.3 (January 1999), University of Pennsylvania, web site, viewed 08 August 1999,

Hirsch F 1999, Detours and lost highways: a map of neo-noir, Limelight Editions, New York.

Kaplan EA (ed.) 1998, “Introduction”, Women In Film Noir, 2nd Edition, BFI Publishing, London.

Kiss Me Deadly 1955, motion picture, directed by Robert Aldrich, United Artists, Los Angeles.

Lost Highway 1997, motion picture, directed by David Lynch, CIBY 2000, Paris.

Lynch D 1997, interview in Cinefantanstique (April1997), cited in Lynchnet, website, viewed 14 August 2003,

Naremore J 1995, 'American Film Noir: The History of an Idea', Film Quarterly, 49(2), Berkely, CA.

Out of the Past 1947, motion picture, directed by Jacques Tourneur, RKO, Los Angeles.

Pearson M 1997, 'Authorship and the Films of David Lynch', in The British Film Resource, web site, viewed 18 August 2003,
< >

Phillips WH 1999, 'Film Noir', in Chapter 6, Film: an introduction, Bedford/St. Martins Press, Boston.

Place J 1998, 'Women in Film Noir', in Kaplan, E. Ann (ed.), Women In Film Noir, 2nd Edition, BFI Publishing, London.

Pulp Fiction 1994, motion picture, directed by Quentin Tarantino, Miramax, Los Angeles

Selby S 1984, Dark city: the film noir, McFarland, Jefferson, N.C.

Singer A 2001, 'Double Indemnity' (1944) Illuminating insight into 1940s gender attitudes', in (32) essays on film & television by "Alvy Singer", web site, viewed 04 October 2003,

Sharrett C 1998, 'The endurance of film noir', in LookSmart, web site, viewed 22 August 2003,
< >

Taxi Driver 1976, motion picture, directed by Martin Scorsese, Columbia/Tristar, Los Angeles.

The Killers 1946, motion picture, directed by Robert Siodmak, Universal Studios, Los Angeles

Villella F 2000, Circular Narratives: Highlights of Popular Cinema in the '90s,
in Senses Of Cinema, web site, viewed 03 September 2003,

Papers | Lost Highway | David Lynch main page
© Mike Hartmann