Lost Highway 20th anniversary: five films that influenced David Lynch’s nightmarish neo-noir

Twenty years after its release, we set our sat-navs for Lost Highway in search of some of the cinematic inspirations that fed into David Lynch’s extraordinary LA-set mystery thriller.

Amy Simmons

Lost Highway (1997)

Lost Highway (1997)

Saturated with violent and sexual themes, Lost Highway embraces the dark side of the Hollywood underworld, where mafia, porn, crime and the occult are interwoven into a story about one man’s tortured, subliminal journey. With no establishing shots of sweeping cityscapes, Lost Highway’s Los Angeles is ultimately rooted in the psyches of its characters, where waking states bleed into one another until fantasy and reality are indistinguishable.

The film – concocted by Lynch with co-writer Barry Gifford – focuses on Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a jazz musician who may or may not have killed his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette). However, from very early on, the tale is disrupted by a continual infolding and reversibility of events. Suffering from a crisis of personal identity, Fred is a typical film noir antihero, inhabiting the doomed and desolate world of the movie.

Lost Highway (1997)

Lost Highway (1997)

Within its twisted, circular and fantastical narrative, Lynch utilises the nightmarish figure of the double, which is linked to both the uncanny and the obsessional nature of his characters. Here, Arquette takes on a dual role (Renee/Alice), while Pullman and Balthazar Getty (Fred/Pete) play men who at various junctures transform into each other.

Both versions of Arquette’s character are painted as duplicitous, and her seductively shot appearance invokes memories of femme fatale Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) as she first appears from the shadows in Out of the Past (1947), or Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) languidly poised near the piano in The Killers (1946). Either reference can only mean trouble.

Nevertheless, Fred’s patriarchal worldview is continuously threatened by his own various projections of the female archetype. Complex, postmodern and self-aware, Lost Highway serves as an outstanding example of contemporary noir, where reality and the psyche are still mysteries to be decoded.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

Director Maya Deren

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

One of the most important short films in the history of American avant-garde cinema, Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon has been identified as a key example of the ‘trance film’, in which a protagonist – here played by Deren – appears in a dreamlike state. With its unsettling atmosphere of dread, death and doubles, the film evokes a terrifying realm of Freudian confusion and repressed fantasy. The influence on Lost Highway is obvious. Establishing a mood of anxiety and a sense of the uncanny, both films reveal a complex cross-weave of parallel worlds and identities – elusive in meaning, yet ripe for debate.

Detour (1945)

Director Edgar G. Ulmer

Detour (1945)

Lynch’s film is a kind of distant remake of this noir B picture from 1945, and there are several plot elements that re-emerge. Both films open with an extended tracking shot of a dividing line running down the middle of a road, and each focuses on a disturbed male nightclub musician who is involved in a complicated relationship. Bookended by sequences in the present and the likely future, Detour is memorable for the taut, rich rendering of its protagonist Al Roberts’ (Tom Neal) hapless existence, blackened by fate, money, bad decisions and aggressive femmes fatales.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Director Robert Aldrich

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Breathtakingly brutal, sardonic and witty, Kiss Me Deadly was light years ahead of its time. Often considered a classic of the noir genre, Aldrich’s film is a masterwork of flashy cinematic style, from its odd juxtaposition of tones to its innovative use of sound. In many ways, it plays like the template for Lynch’s entire career. Among Lynch’s direct references to Kiss Me Deadly, including a shot of the road being sucked underneath the eye of the camera, there are mysterious recorded messages, a central garage setting and a beach house on stilts that explodes in flames.

Vertigo (1958)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Like Vertigo, Lost Highway examines the ethereal nature of feminine subjectivity. Following the direct lineage of both Hitchcock’s film and Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), all three centre on male obsessions with women, where the female leads are presented only with identities that relate to other men. None of them are ever quite real: they are women as ideals, who shimmer and transform under the male gaze. Lost Highway completes the loop. The male character literally becomes two characters, both in love with two different women, who are represented as nothing more than a literalised desire.

Images (1972)

Director Robert Altman

Images (1972)

In Robert Altman’s intensely drawn, experimental psychological drama, Images focuses on lonely housewife Cathryn (Susannah York), who, trapped in a web of sexual guilt, visualises encounters with two men other than her husband. Like Fred’s character in Lost Highway, she receives strange, phantom phone calls as she struggles to keep her sanity. This inability to discern what is real and what is imagined is at the core of Altman’s intriguingly obscure thriller, and, corresponding to Lynch’s vision, the film boldly creates an otherworldly idea by allowing logic and caution to fall by the wayside.

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