Noir September: Mulholland Drive and the End of the Road


My original intention last month was to chronicle the films I screened as I went—and as usual, that fell victim to other things. But there was another consideration. The further I went into the month, the more I realized that film noir is less about any single film and more about a series of themes and tropes. That it might be preferable to consider the power behind the form, why it matters now, even if the medium is rooted in a series of outmoded archetypes.

The last film I saw last month, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), frankly, gave me very little choice, such as it is not only a distillation of noir elements but also a comment and ultimately, a deconstruction of them. The film at once reminds us that such elements are eternal while at the same time rendering them as archaic and formulaic as the Betty-and-Veronica duality that sits at the heart of the story. In that regard, it might be regarded as the eulogy for the form, as Lynch seems to be telling us that its basic tenets—the detective story, the femme fatale, the underbelly of Los Angeles, the shadowy menace—are best viewed as totems now rather than actual storytelling devices, that they have been internalized by the audience to such an extent that any idea of playing it straight is futile.


You be me for awhile--and I'll be you.

You be me for awhile–and I’ll be you.

Consider how many noir films Lynch’s work references. Without checking other criticism of the film, I made my own list: Kiss Me Deadly, Gilda, Vertigo, Sunset Blvd, Laura, Where Danger Lives[1], Pulp Fiction, The Godfather[2], The Lady from Shanghai, and In a Lonely Place. (If you’re going to steal, steal from the best: Welles, Hitchcock, Coppola, Ray, etc.) Lynch historically has worked in this universe; he’s fascinated by the conflict between the surface image and the reality underneath, which is the very essence of noir. His breakout film, Blue Velvet, was (literally) all about this, but beyond that, he’s been fixated with the idea of the good and bad girl (Twin Peaks), the lovers on the run (Wild at Heart), questions of identity and deception (Lost Highway) and the collision between Hollywood romanticism and darkness. (Wild at Heart, Blue Velvet[3])

Mulholland Drive (or, more accurately, Dr.[4]) seems like Lynch’s definitive statement on the subject. The film ruminates on classic Hollywood through the use of noir devices. It is an appeal to our collective memory of cinema. Beyond the movies I listed above, it connects thematically to every noir film I watched last month, even some as obscure as 99 River Street (1953), Body and Soul (1947) and Night and the City (1950).

Those three noir tales are rooted in desperate aspirationalism, selfishness, and a sense of being denied a due. River Street’s hero, lumpen ex-boxer Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) is at the mercy of his wife’s avarice—and is pulled into the underworld because of it. He’s an angry almost-champion, and his journey in the film becomes an ascent out of noir hell. In Body and Soul and Night and the City, the protagonist is the one with unmet desires. Moral compromise is near. “I just want to be somebody,” says Harry Fabian, as played with virtuosity by Richard Widmark, in Night. Another character says of him: “Harry is an artist without an art.”

An artist without an art.

An artist without an art.

Could any observation better capture the rage felt by Naomi Watts’ “real” self, Diane Selwyn, in Mulholland? She’s been cheated out of her destiny; she’ll never make it big. Lynch lets us know that Diane is an improvisational genius by showing her audition (as her “other” self, Betty), her closest moment to achieving fame and fortune. But that moment is scuttled by studio politics and hapless, ineffectual men. A lesser talent, Camilla Rhodes, becomes famous and Diane doesn’t.[5] Ernie Driscoll in River Street burns with precisely the same resentment—he lost a heavyweight fight–and both act with aggressive, mortal impulses.

Diane is close cousin to The Maltese Falcon’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Brigid (Mary Astor) tries on identities like hats, something that had to appeal to Lynch. Brigid may have been the movies’ first shape-shifter, oscillating throughout the film, toggling from good to bad in an instant. Lynch actually makes these identity shifts explicit. Astor made them feel organic.[6] And are the grotesques in Lynch’s film really much different than the combination of Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook? The difference is that in Lynch’s version of the story, Sam Spade stays offstage. The times no longer accommodate him.

I've been bad, worse than you can know.

I’ve been bad, worse than you can know.

That’s in line with two other films I screened this month, The Long Goodbye and Night Moves, where the entire conceit of a private detective in search of “truth” felt anachronistic in the age of Watergate. Those two films, along with Chinatown and many others such as L.A. Confidential, are lumped into a category often termed “neo-Noir.” But I’d argue that they belong, along with Mulholland, in a different genre, as films that keep a postmodern and telescoped distance from the story. They aren’t noir as much as they are works examining the relevance of noir in the current world.

The two Coen brothers films I saw split the difference. Blood Simple (1984) is a straight-ahead pulp potboiler with almost no arch to it or artifice it. The Coens’ first film is also one of their leanest and most disciplined; the joy comes from watching the characters being put through their paces and finding residual power in the familiar elements, the doublecross, the vagaries of fate. But The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) finds the Coens at their most synthetic. It’s an oddly inert film that seems to lack a reason or existence. A technical exercise, a mannequin dressed in genre clothing. Noir is the most human of cinematic artforms because it’s tethered to our selfishness. Billy Bob’s Thornton’s protagonist, however, often acts with motives seem to be as much a mystery to him as us. While a man swept along helplessly by events is a favorite theme of the Coens, here it’s rendered without passion—something embedded within the much superior Blood Simple.

Life is a highway.

Life is a highway.

The Coens have always been uncomfortable with the human condition beyond, say, pettiness or selfishness and have always seemed almost entirely uninterested in eroticism. Their characters often sometimes seem to be imitating humans as much as being them–and I say that as a fan. Lynch, conversely, revels in our lurid, deeper selves, in the twisted things of which we’re capable when tortured by desire. That makes noir a natural subject for him. Betrayal seems almost to be a natural outgrowth of lust.

A film that serves as a bridge between classic noir and what we might call reflexive or self-aware noir is the unappreciated Hollywoodland, released a full five years after Mulholland in 2006. It’s a film that, like Lynch’s work, is trying to arrive at a psychological understanding of place.[7] It’s no coincidence, I think, that the suicides of actors lie at the hearts of both films. The key difference is that director Allen Coulter makes his film more accessible by staying truer to noir tropes by giving us a Philip Marlowe, in the form of Adrien Brody’s Louis Simo, to serve as both an outside observer and The One Good Man who isn’t tainted by the events around him.

Lady from Shanghai or Man from Krypton?

Lady from Shanghai or Man from Krypton?

But make no mistake, both films are about the gulf between the fantasy offered by Los Angeles and the reality. In that respect, the wide-eyed Betty in Lynch’s film and the can-do George Reeves at the start of Coulter’s are similar. Both begin as optimists. And both are in dark places by the end, whisked there by both their lack of success and their own insecurities. Betty/Diane compares herself to Rita/Carmilla[8] and knows she can’t measure up, just as George, despite his success on TV, knows he’ll never be Burt Lancaster.

But what Hollywoodland understands—and Lynch makes explicit—is that noir is rooted in our conceptions and expectations, in our idealized selves, in archetypes. It was a style rooted in German Expressionism, a sharp-angled symbolism. What was more archetypical and idealized than Superman? Mulholland flips and shuffles those roles. Laura Herring’s Rita looks like an almost too-perfect reincarnation of her namesake Rita Hayworth[11], yet she’s a cipher, a blank slate, showing only aggression when she seduces Betty into reclaiming her reality. Betty is literally the Girl Who Steps Off the Bus. All of the film’s mysteries are internal. The monsters are our own, the ones in ourselves. In the end, Lynch’s film’s greatest accomplishment is turn the viewer into the classic noir protagonist, the private detective navigating a netherworld where nothing can be taken for granted. I wrote earlier that Sam Spade stays offstage this time—and that’s true. But he’s still present. We’re Spade, we’re alone–and we don’t know who to trust. That does almost the impossible. It makes noir modern. And vital.


Before there was Betty.

Before there was Betty.


[1] Robert Mitchum wanders through most of this 1950 film with a serious head injury, much like Rita in the film’s first act.

[2] The Godfather as noir? I can make that argument. At its heart, it’s the story of an ordinary man (Michael Corleone) drawn into a web of criminality. It carries a stamp of fatalism. Of negative destiny.

[3] Lynch cast Ingrid Bergman’s daughter, Isabella Rossellini, in Blue Velvet, and Bruce Dern’s daughter, Laura, in both that film and Wild at Heart, matching her up in that film with Nic Cage, who is Francis Coppola’s nephew. Cage was explicitly playing Elvis Presley in that film, which also riffed on The Wizard of Oz.

[4] A deliberate homage to Sunset Blvd., which is also explicitly referenced with a signpost in Lynch’s film.

[5] I am endorsing the reading of the film as a dream had by Diane after she has had Camilla murdered, an analysis best spelled out by the legendary Film Crit Hulk here.

[6] When Diane “appears”—and especially when she recruits Camilla’s killer—she’s less Mary Astor now than a sad-sack version of Peggy Cummins in the brilliant Gun Crazy (1950). She’s a schemer who’ll do things others won’t, with no moral register.

[7] This separates it from the work of Tarantino, who sees Hollywood as a mainly a function of popular culture fused with a gangster (not noir) sensibility.

[8] It’s a tribute to Lynch’s casting sense that Laura Harring, who plays Rita/Carmilla feels like a starlet sent forward from the past. She is a compelling presence, even if she barely says 20 lines in the movie. You end up feeling like Harring (who, oddly enough is evocative of not only Rita Hayworth but the beautiful and troubled Gene Tierney, who starred in Laura) came to L.A. at the wrong time. But it’s possible, given her lack of career success before or since, that she had a look, but couldn’t act. And it was that very quality that Lynch seized upon. Even so, she exudes both Hollywood royalty and tragedy because of that.

[9] In that they look more like Lauren Bacall than Megan Fox.

[10] A name that is weirdly evocative of Terry Lennox in Chandler’s (and Altman’s) The Long Goodbye.

[11] What does Welles do with Hayworth in Lady From Shanghai? First, he separates her from her traditional image, having her cut her hair short and dyeing it blonde (reminiscent of the blonde wig Rita wears) and then places her in a hall of mirrors at the end, splintering her into endless iterations. That’s a movie almost as bizarre as this one. Also: if you want to get really weird about it: Lynch’s film features a cameo by Billy Ray Cyrus, best known now as the father of Miley, who started in Hollywood as a more innocent brunette before adopting a more adult and carnal identity as a short-haired blonde.


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