David Lynch has generally presented himself as a kind of naif, and “no cinephile”, working more from inspiration than influence. While this is largely true, and offers a useful explanation of how his films end up in the strange and wonderful places they do, I’ve noticed over the years a few moments that definitely betray the influence of specific other movies, some of which are equally revealing of Lynch’s approach…
YOJIMBO — WILD AT HEART. The dog with the human arm in his mouth,whom I’ve named “Murdo“, trots out of Kurosawa’s evocation of a no-horse town in 19th century Japan, and into a Texas bank. Actually, since the arm is found in the bank, perhaps we need to posit the existence of a time-traveling hound who scoops up a banker’s forelimb and absconds back to Edo period Japan.
Complicating the matter is Murdo’s appearance in both THE NEW YORK RIPPER and the TV show Lost…
EXPERIMENT IN TERROR — WILD AT HEART — TWIN PEAKS. This Blake Edwards thriller (!) is graced by a wonderfully scary performance by Ross Martin, who has one intense scene intimidating a teenage Stephanie Powers which seems like an unmistakable influence on the “fuck me” scene between Willem Dafoe and Laura Dern in WAH. But the IMDb mentions other salient connections between this film and Twin Peaks which I somehow missed on my first viewing years ago — the score by Henry Mancini obviously strongly influenced the roadhouse theme in TP, and there’s an actual Twin Peaks road sign at the start of the movie. Furthermore, Martin’s psychopath character is actually called Lynch!
THE RAPTURE — LOST HIGHWAY. Robert Blake’s first, memorably unsettling appearance in LH sees him amble up to Bill Pullman at a party, dressed in black and with an air of Uncle Fester about him, and engage our hero in a strange conversation, during which the party music and background noise fade slowly to silence. Then he ambles off again and the normal sound resumes. In Michael Tolkin’s THE RAPTURE, Patrick Bauchau does exactly the same, only with different dialogue. His Uncle Festerishness is produced not by a close-shaved head and eyebrows, but by a priestly cowl, but his effect on the party atmos is identical. Everything that is said in the scene is quite different, but the general shape is the same. Of course, Lynch’s version is both scarier and funnier than Tolkin’s.
Incidentally, I once asked Lynch about The Mystery Man. He declined to say whether the MM, who turns up with a video camera late in the movie, was the one sending video tapes to Bill Pullman’s house. But he did say, helpfully, “He’s someone we’ve all met.”
This example feels like Lynch might have switched on his TV a few minutes into THE RAPTURE, caught this scene, become fascinated, and decided to use a variation of it in a movie somewhere, perhaps even switching the TV off and never learning the movie’s name… not wanting to spoil the intriguing little scene with context and explanation…
KISS ME DEADLY — LOST HIGHWAY. LH being a “twenty-first century noir,” movie references are perhaps more prevalent than in other Lynch films. The exploding shack which appears, destroying itself in reverse (creating itself) amid a retracting fireball during the striking sequence where Bill Pullman transforms into Baltazar Getty, seems to evoke the exploding house at the climax of Aldrich’s 1958 ne plus ultra of noir. In fact, Lynch’s decision to film the shack exploding was one of his last-minute on-set inspirations. Filming the climactic reverse transformation later in the movie, which takes place in front of the shack, he suddenly flashed on the image of the building exploding. “So I asked the special effects guy what kind of really high-powered explosives he had. And he said that he had a lot, but that he could get more.”
THE KILLERS — OUT OF THE PAST — LOST HIGHWAY. LH repeats the noir plot device that when a man wants to disappear, he becomes a garage mechanic in a small town. Both Burt Lancaster, an ex-boxer, and Robert Mitchum, a former PI, manage this surprising career change. (A garage also features in BLUE VELVET, and both this film and LOST HIGHWAY feature disabled African-Americans among their staff. Not sure what we can make of that except that Lynch likes what he likes.)
THE WIZARD OF OZ — WILD AT HEART. This is really too obvious to need elucidating, and besides, the OZ references doubtless originate in Barry Gifford’s source novel. In fact, the Gifford-related movies tend to have more intertextual stuff than the others, however —
GILDA — MUHOLLAND DR. Not only does the amnesiac Rita derive her name from a poster for this movie, but the audition scene where Naomi Watts plays a scene of hatred as if it were a love scene is a clear paraphrase of a similar scene between Glenn Ford and Rita Hyaworth in the classic noir. SUNSET BLVD also seems to inform this film, but in a more diffuse way that’s hard to pinpoint through direct comparisons.
And now a weird one —
TALES OF HOFFMANN / KILL BABY KILL —Twin Peaks (last episode). In the spooky finale of his hit TV show, Lynch redeems the series from its second-season slump with a prolonged sequence set in the Red Room, or Black Lodge. At the climax of this, the good Kyle MacLachlan is chase by a bad Kyle MacLachlan down a repeating series of red-curtained rooms and corridors. This seems to relate both to the chase through a single, endlessly looped room in Powell & Pressburger’s filmed opera-ballet exercise in pure cinema, but also to a chase through repeating rooms in Mario Bava’s delirious low-budget psychedelic period horror movie (which also inspired Fellini’s TOBY DAMMIT). The malevolent doppelganger also reminds me of the last episode of The Prisoner and the revelation of Number 1.
The one-armed man in Twin Peaks was originally written in as a throwaway nod to The Fugitive, but when Lynch realized what a great actor Al Strobel was, he enlarged the role greatly and made it (somehow) central to the series’ mythology.
Anyhow, these little references and influences point to a slightly different picture of Lynch than the usual one, although these examples are all from post-BLUE VELVET movies — I don’t think the earlier Lynch films reference cinema nearly so much. I suspect his childhood and personal fantasies supplied all the initial impetus he needed, and then the longer he’s worked in film the more movie quotations have seeped into his work in an osmotic fashion. The point is not to denounce him as a thieving swine, but merely to point out the more complicated relationship his cinema has with other movies.
Please jump in with any other examples you may have spotted!