by Sarah Nichols

In looking for a way to write about David Lynch’s Lost Highway, I found myself going back to the 1955 essay “Towards a Definition of Film Noir” by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton. They were, of course, looking at those films from what we think of as the classical period of noir, and realizing that  “one could simplify the problem by assigning to film noir qualities such as nightmarish, weird, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel” (1).  I could easily “assign …such qualities” to Lost Highway specifically and Lynch’s works in general, but the film is, in the best sense, unhinged, and closer to a line written by Isidore Ducasse, (and quoted in Borde and Chaumeton’s essay): “the bloody paths down which we drive logic into dread” (2).

Quite literally, it drives.  The title sequence is enshrouded in night, the camera’s point of view almost meeting the road, and pulling back; David Bowie’s voice mournful. It is ripe for accident and death, but not simply an atmosphere. It is the condition of the world, but of dreams, too: in the first half of the film,  Fred (Bill Pullman) tells his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette) about a dream he had: he couldn’t find her in their house, a space portrayed as unlived in; it could be a theater set. This is where Lynch’s gift lies, and it strikes me as beyond surreal: the banal noir plot of a murderous husband and an adulterous wife is taken into Death itself; that is, Fred and Renee witness their own deaths when they encounter the videotapes that have been left for them on their doorstep (the first, a single shot of the exterior of their home, the second, more sinister, is now inside, and watches the couple sleeping. The last, and most disturbing, is of Fred with the dismembered corpse of Renee).  A preview of a coming attraction.

I should say a few words about the Mystery Man (Robert Blake), because he does carry over into the second half of the film,  and may indeed be Death “he exceeds the constraints of temporality and spatiality, moving from past to present…and occupying two spaces simultaneously. While everyone in this film is trapped, everyone also partakes of this blackness that exceeds limit and border” (3).  But if he is a figure of death, then he is something more malevolent, as well, a spirit of violence personified, perhaps, invited into the homes (and minds) of men; he tells Fred, and later, Pete (Balthazar Getty) that they’ve “met before,” and that he doesn’t go where he isn’t invited; and he has been invited. I would argue that asimilar figure makes an appearance in Lynch’s television series Twin Peaks (it has been too long since I have seen Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, to comment on that film) in the form of the killer Bob which possesses Leland Palmer.

 In the second half of the film, Fred is sentenced to death for murdering Renee, and while awaiting execution, is plagued by headaches. He is eventually replaced by a younger man, Pete, who has no idea of how he arrived there.  “This is spooky shit we’re dealing with,” says a prison official, and it is, for we have left the “comfortable” world of noir and are now in a place that briefly explores rebirth (before heading back into death).  When Pete appears in the cell, he has a head wound which is still bleeding, and according to his record, he is only nineteen years old.  While virile where Fred is impotent, Pete is naïve, falling for the hard, blonde femme fatale Alice, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Renee, and is the possession of the gangster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia).

 Pete and Alice’s affair ends in the desert, in a frenzy of eroticism by a cabin that has been seen throughout the film, both in flames, and restoring itself.  Fred returns, and we catch a glimpse of Renee in this desolate way station, too.  The Mystery Man appears.  This place is neither heaven nor hell, and maybe not even purgatory: Lynch is showing us a dream realm that at times looks like just another Los Angeles noir story, but pushes on into the larger Mysteries, and we keep driving on into them, swallowed up by the bloody path.


  1. Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, “Towards a Definition of Film Noir,” trans. Alain Silver, Film Noir Reader,  ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini (New York: Limelight, 1996) 18.
  1.  Ducasse, quoted in Borde and Chaumeton, 19.
  1. Rene Celeste, “Lost Highway: Unveiling Cinema’s Yellow Brick Road,” CineAction 43 (1997): 33-34.